ESPN had an idea for a showpiece college basketball game, and the way it was pieced together provides a glimpse of how the cable giant can control college sports.
What if the University of Louisville, the 2013 national champions, played an all-expenses-paid game in Puerto Rico in November of 2014, network officials thought. Better yet, what if the marquee attraction pitted coach Rick Pitino against his son, coach Richard Pitino of the Minnesota Gophers?
ESPN first approached Louisville and, after getting its agreement, then dialed Minnesota, making it appear that the Gophers were only along for the ride.
“ESPN, really, made a suggestion of, ‘How would Minnesota look in this game?’ ” said Louisville senior associate athletic director Kenny Klein. “It was basically a joint thing” between Louisville and ESPN to approach the University of Minnesota.
The matchup, which will be played in November at a U.S. Coast Guard air station, is but one example of how Minnesota — like most major college sports programs — goes far and wide to gain exposure for its basketball team. But teams can be beholden to sponsors in doing so.
The exposure can help with recruiting, give well-heeled fans a chance to accompany the team to popular locations and add spice to a season that, for the Gophers this year, will end with a trip to the ESPN-televised National Invitational Tournament in New York City.
Clint Overby, ESPN’s senior director of events, said the sports cable network’s influence can be overstated, and “I can’t [see] that in any scenario where we technically ‘control the universe.’ ” Overby noted that in any matchup involving Louisville, “they’re the marquee attraction. [But] Minnesota’s had a great year.”
Three months after ESPN announced the Louisville-Minnesota game, Minnesota officials are still releasing few details about the game but acknowledged that television is often in control.
“The reality of modern college athletics is that television has influence on almost every game we play,” said Chris Werle, a Gophers associate athletic director. But “in-season [special games and] tournaments are worthwhile investments.”
While sponsors pay for nearly all of the costs, the team can sometimes be left spending more than it gets reimbursed.
Costs add up
The Gophers flew to Hawaii at Thanksgiving to play in the Maui Invitational, a trip that matched the team against powerhouse Syracuse and Arkansas but according to newly released figures left the school nearly $100,000 in the red. The school spent more than $37,000 for meals and $50,000 for hotel rooms.
As part of its Maui tournament contract — the tournament’s chief sponsor is EA Sports, the sports video game maker — the Gophers were obligated to play a “Maui Warm-Up” game and pay an opponent $80,000 for them to come to Minnesota. The Gophers won the warm-up game against Coastal Carolina. Minnesota, as part of its contract obligations, also paid a Chicago-based company $40,000 to help market the tournament.
Meanwhile the Maui Visitors Bureau reported that the tournament brought $12.7 million in visitor spending to the island, and nearly 5,000 visitors. “The summits, beaches and beauty of Maui [were] also showcased to 6.7 million viewers across the globe on ESPN telecasts,” the visitors’ bureau said in an after-tournament statement.
Steve Erban of Creative Charters in Lake Elmo said that fans going to the Maui tournament did not get a particularly good deal because of the control sponsors have on travel packages. He said that gameday tickets were selling for $65 in Maui, but cost $114 for those who prepaid for them as part of a package.
The year before, the team flew to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, which is not televised by ESPN. The trip was largely underwritten by a hotelier and casino operator, and the team played its games in a large hotel ballroom before a TV audience, but relatively few fans. The Gophers second game in the Bahamas, a victory against the University of Memphis, drew 1,462 fans.
Werle said the school took into account that the Atlantis hotel complex had a casino, and that the team was reminded about the university’s “expectations of conduct, which includes discussions about gambling.”
Kerzner International paid the Gophers a $150,000 appearance fee. The team, under the contract, received $25,000 for appearing in the fifth place game.
Kerzner paid for the team’s travel to the Bahamas, provided hotel rooms at the Atlantis resort and catered pregame meals. The Gophers had to schedule an official warm-up game in Minnesota prior the Bahamas tournament, place a Battle 4 Atlantis logo on the floor of Williams Arena for the game and pay a team $75,000 to play in the warm-up game.
The school received more than $201,000 in revenue from the trip, but had nearly $190,000 in expenses.
The basketball court “was a really large ballroom,” said Eric Benson, a Gophers fan who went to the Bahamas tournament. Atlantis “was high quality. [But the game] seats were subpar. They were kind of rusted out. They were just cheap.”
Must travel for best games
Benson said such trips are unfair to most Gopher fans because in the early part of the season fans have to “pay thousands of dollars to go to the Bahamas” to see Minnesota play top-tier teams like Duke and Stanford. The team’s early-season home games in Minnesota, he said, typically have many “cupcake games.” Before going to the Bahamas, the Gophers played among others Minnesota State, Southwest Baptist and Toledo.
Benson said he paid close to $2,000 for the five-day trip.
There are advantages to accompanying the team. In Maui, Cheryl Anderson said she stayed at the same hotel the team was at, sat two rows behind the Gophers bench for the games and was personally thanked by Pitino for coming.
The Gophers have tentatively agreed with ESPN to appear again in Puerto Rico in 2015, this time for a late November tournament. The school will get $10,000 in travel money and 14 rooms and one suite at a hotel selected by ESPN.
The Gophers opponents in the games will be selected by ESPN.
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388