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Jeff Eisenberg

Explaining the decline of the (formerly) Great Alaska Shootout

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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It was only a few years ago that the Great Alaska Shootout stood alongside the Maui Invitational as the two signature events of college basketball's early-season tournament scene.

Today this once-proud tournament continues to tumble further into irrelevance.

Highlighting the 2010 field Shootout organizers released Wednesday is solid but unspectacular Arizona State and a St. John's team that could be improved next season but also hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2002. And the rest of the field? Try getting excited about Ball State, Drake, Southern Utah and Weber State and Houston Baptist joining host Alaska Anchorage.

So how did we get to this point with a tournament that previously featured the defending national champion five times and produced an NCAA tournament team in all 31 of its past editions? Blame a rule change the NCAA passed in 2006 allowing teams to play in more than two 'exempt events' every four years, creating a demand for more early-season tournaments and empowering ESPN to create new events.

Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn explained last November:

In the season that followed the enactment of the NCAA's new legislation, ESPN Regional Television, an event-management and marketing subsidiary of ESPN based in Charlotte, jumped into the market and created its first, eight-team tournament: The Old Spice Classic, which was held an arena owned by ESPN's parent company, Disney, on the grounds of Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

In 2007, ESPN launched two more tournaments, the 76 Classic, in Anaheim, Calif., and the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan. In 2008 they launched the Charleston Classic in Charleston, S.C.; next month, they'll debut the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii; and in December 2010 they'll unveil the Cancun Governor's Cup in Mexico. In the meantime, some non-ESPN tournaments have faded, and others, such as the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the San Juan Shootout, have been forced out of the market altogether.

Flush with new tournaments that did not require a rights fee to air, ESPN did not renew its contract with The Great Alaska Shootout in 2007. As a result, Shootout officials could neither match the lucrative financial guarantee ESPN-sponsored tournaments offered prospective teams nor provide an attractive national TV package, making it nearly impossible to consistently draw marquee programs.

In 2008, the Shootout's highest-profile teams were San Diego State and Portland State. In 2009, Shootout officials could only lure six teams instead of eight. By contrast, the lightly attended, ESPN-sponsored 76 Classic in Anaheim featured the likes of UCLA, Butler, Wake Forest, Clemson and Minnesota last season and will have Oklahoma State, Stanford, Virginia Tech and UNLV among others in 2010.

Hopefully the Shootout finds a way to compete financially again somehow so the fans who continue to support the tournament are rewarded with the sort of field they grew accustomed to a decade ago.

If not, it's probably a matter of time before the Great Alaska Shootout is gone. And if ESPN doesn't renew its contract with the Maui Invitational next year, that historic tournament could be next.

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