ESPN axes BracketBusters, ending an innovative event that outlived its usefulness

Like the last embers of a campfire, BracketBusters died quietly Tuesday.

ESPN's announcement that it will end the made-for-TV mid-major showcase after its 11th edition this February did not spark much protest, uproar or debate. The quiet demise was fitting for an innovative but unwieldy event that had outlived its usefulness years ago.

When ESPN created the event in 2002 to help top mid-majors get the marquee games and TV exposure they needed to receive at-large NCAA tournament bids, the concept was new and intriguing. Any mid-major coach with a quality program will bemoan the challenge of getting power-conference opponents to agree to play a home-and-home series, so this was a way around that problem.

BracketBusters did serve its purpose a few times, most notably when victories over Wichita State helped both George Mason and VCU sneak into the NCAA tournament with at-large bids in 2006 and 2011. Of course, the Patriots and Rams went on memorable Final Four runs that may not have been possible were it not for BracketBusters.

The problem, however, was that BracketBusters hurt more teams than it helped by the end of its run.

A streamlined 18-team event in 2002 quickly became unnecessarily bloated over the next decade until it needlessly included over 100 teams. Most of those teams didn't get a marquee game or any additional TV exposure, yet they still had to return the game the following year, often to a school well outside their region.

Besides the event's unwieldy nature, the other problem was that it eliminated more mid-major programs from at-large contention than it boosted into the field. bracket expert Andy Glockner actually referred to it as "BracketEliminators" because for every George Mason or VCU that picked up a signature win, there were typically multiple teams which suffered RPI-killing losses.

What really killed the event in the eyes of ESPN, however, was probably that it could no longer create enough marquee matchups to interest viewers.

Gonzaga, Butler and teams in the Mountain West or Atlantic 10 have long avoided participating because they can schedule better games on their own and they want no part of the mid-major label. Then this year, BracketBusters lost the CAA because the league signed a TV deal with NBC Sports Network.

The result is this year's BracketBusters will feature the Missouri Valley Conference, maybe Saint Mary's and Murray State and at most a couple other relevant teams. There may be a few quality matchups just like last year's Long Beach State-Creighton and Murray State-Saint Mary's games, but by and large, there isn't enough good about BracketBusters anymore for it to be missed.

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