College Basketball, a Failing Brand

by Sam Prince @phisammajamma

It’s that time of year again. Are you ready to dust off the sleds, take out the snowsuits, change over to the snow tires, and gas up the snow blower? Your face is going to turn red. Ice sickles will grow out of your nose. You’ll snuggle with your significant other in front of the fireplace, while sipping hot cocoa. Be careful not to burn yourself. Don’t hit the snooze; you have to leave home early to make it to work late.  Yes, it is that time of year again. It is the college basketball season.


Remember the great teams and players? Michael Jordan and James Worthy. There was South African born Steve Nash, who led Santa Clara on an unprecedented tournament run.  Or how about French Lick Larry Bird, and Spartan Magic Johnson? Jalen Rose and Chris Webber were key members of the Fab Five who led Michigan to two straight championship games. Phi Slamma Jamma. The Running Rebels of UNLV. 40 Minutes of Hell. Duke’s Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Elton Brand, J.J. Reddick and Jay Williams are all household names. Georgetown had three Hall of Fame Centers, back to back to back. And who doesn’t remember Juan Dixon and Steve Blake who led Maryland to a title in 2002?


College basketball had an identity, a brand, and America bought into it, the nation taking a fanatical stand with regional colleges and universities. Top programs could keep their best players for three to four seasons. This allowed the fan to develop a relationship and a bond with players. We could watch them grow and mature, going from a freshman role player to eventually budding into a senior star, and NBA prospect.


That bond has been snatched away, partially by the NBA, but also due to the changing economic and cultural landscape of America. As a result the college basketball game and product as a whole is suffering, but the biggest injustice is being done to its subsidizers, the fans.


First, the NBA allows players to enter their league a year removed from high school. This forces top college prospects to get exposure playing against a higher level of competition, prior to entering the NBA. In short, this gives NBA teams more time to scout players (hopefully avoiding a bust), as oppose to drafting them directly out of high school. Does Kwame Brown ring a bell?


Through NBA Cares and other socially responsible causes, the NBA exudes an image of integrity, however, behind the veil it can be argued that they’re looking out for their best interests. Honestly nobody can be mad at them for that. The NBA is in the business of making money, and like most businesses they believe in attaining the greatest profit margin with the least amount of output. Still, how is it that the most talented people in a capitalistic country are unable to profit from their skill and ability until well after they’ve reached the legal working age?


Culturally America has changed. Media thrives on thronging a consumerist agenda, the most obvious reason being because they are sustained through ad money. This agenda applies a negative stigma to the “have nots,” perpetuating a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality and as recent studies show, the majority of Americans fall under the “have not” category.


Education is no longer at the precipice, as it has been thrust into the abyss in a Good Son manner by the desire to attain wealth, and attain it quickly. Money is king, and people want to have it. It is indicative of security, whereas education isn’t anymore. When people see that there are Ph.D.’s who can’t find work that sends a clear message as to the value of education. The perception has changed.


Now back to basketball.


College basketball’s brand has become diluted as the game has mutated over the years. Basketball is a shell of its former self. The grinding, lunch pail, Charles Oakley days of basketball are long gone.


We are now in a new age of basketball. When top recruits enroll into college as freshmen, scouts aren’t concerned with their development as college players, Players are now thought of in in regards to their pro potential. High ceiling players are drafted after their freshman season. Other players that remain in college beyond their freshmen year have a negative stigma attached to them. The probability of a player reaching star level decreases if they aren’t projected as a lottery pick after their freshman year; therefore, these players are devalued by teams, often viewed as role fillers. There is a lot of risk associated with this, and many of these players become busts.


Among this season’s “Diaper Dandies” (as Dick Vitale calls freshman phenomes) is Bill Simmons, a talented McDonald’s All-American who’s now attending the University of Louisiana. LSU has had an influx of top tier talent in recent years, along with other programs like Arizona, Kentucky, and UCLA.


They have become one to two year pit stops for others like Simmons, including: Aaron Gordon, Kyle Anderson, Stanley Johnson, Shabazz Muhammad, Demarcus Cousins, and John Wall. Each year these programs have lost freshmen to the NBA draft, unable to actually build a solid foundation for their programs and it shows in their NCAA tournament performance.


When it’s “winning time” in the NCAA tournament, the nod goes to top coaches and mature programs. The two actually have a direct relationship. Top coaches are more likely to do well coaching younger programs with raw talent. This is why we see Coach K and John Calipari playing late in March each year.


That being said, top coaches with mature talent typically go deep in the NCAA tournament. Led by Gordon Hayward and coached by Brad Stevens, Butler went to back to back national championship games. Although they don’t always get top talent, the Michigan State Spartans often advance deep in the NCAA tournament. Michigan State always has senior driven teams with ripe talent. Tom Izzo’s past teams have been led by the likes of Draymond Green, Mateen Cleaves and Kalin Lucas, and this season Izzo’s winning algorithm is at work again through All-American Denzel Valentine.


Due to the “one and done” exodus, college basketball’s brand has suffered. Many colleges aren’t even turning a profit on their basketball teams. According to ESPN’s Darren Rovell, “More than two of every five teams in the NCAA tournament either didn’t make a dime or lost money on their men’s basketball program last year.” The bleeding isn’t over either, as it is only a matter of time before college players are paid. As social awareness increases and people begin to champion the cause of college athletes, the college sport landscape will rapidly change. What will college basketball be in the next decade?


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