At a time when so many former pillars of college basketball's preseason tournament calendar have tumbled into irrelevance or been forced out of the market altogether, the Maui Invitational is pulling out all the stops to ensure it continues to thrive.
Tournament organizers announced Thursday that a loaded 2011 field will feature past NCAA champions Duke, UCLA, Kansas, Georgetown and Michigan as well as marquee programs Memphis and Tennessee. The Maui Invitational will also expand from eight to 12 teams in 2011.
Maui officials would not confirm that the strength of the 2011 event has anything to do with their ESPN contract expiring that same year, but a changing landscape has forced independent tournaments to work harder for national TV exposure. ESPN has become less dependent on independent tournaments that charge rights fees to air their games because the network entered the exempt-event market a few years ago and began creating events of its own.
A rule change in 2006 allowed teams to play in more than two exempt events every four years, generating demand for more early-season tournaments and empowering ESPN to create events like the 76 Classic or the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. As a result, independent tournaments such as the San Juan Shootout or Great Alaska Shootout have faded or disappeared, unable to match the lucrative financial guarantees ESPN-sponsored tournaments offer teams or provide as attractive a national TV package.
What sets the Maui Invitational apart from other exempt events is its combination of location, exposure and prestige. The tournament began two years after Chaminade's famous upset of top-ranked Virginia in 1982 and became a staple on ESPN's family of networks almost immediately.
"This tournament is a special experience for the teams because you've got the history, you've got the arena, you've got the island and you've got national television," Maui Invitational chairman Dave Odom said. "Maui was the first tournament of its kind. I think it's analogous to the Rose Bowl. It's very much the granddaddy of all the exempt tournaments. It's lasted the longest, stood the tallest and been the biggest."
To ensure that the tournament remains as attractive as possible for top teams, Maui officials have expanded the field to 12 teams beginning in 2011. Because exempt tournaments are allowed to offer participants four games and Maui has traditionally offered only three, organizers decided to add an extra home game for the seven Maui-bound teams to increase revenue to help pay for the trip.
Opening games will be played between the seven Maui-bound teams and four mainland teams at the Maui-bound teams' home arenas. Then the mainland teams will hold a three-day tournament at one of their home arenas, while the seven Maui-bound teams join Chaminade on the island for the main event.
"We think the change is good because it gives the Maui-bound teams that fourth game in their arenas, which would allow them extra revenue," Odom said. "We seriously considered doing it in 2010, but in the spirit of doing things the right way and not rushing, we delayed it a year, made sure the NCAA and ESPN were on board with what we were doing and came up with exactly the right format."
For Odom, the process of assembling the Maui Invitational field begins with the idea that no team can play in the tournament more than once every four years. Thus Odom attempts to create a rotation of the traditional powers, making sure he staggers it in such a way that he keeps the tournament fresh and doesn't repeat the same field every four years.
Odom already has seven of the eight spots in the 2012 event locked up and at least half of the spots in 2013 and 2014 are taken too. He likes to leave at least one spot open late each year to accommodate a team that projects to be uncommonly good that next season such as Missouri Valley Conference favorite Wichita State in this year's tournament.
"I don't want to fill it too far ahead because you never know what's going to happen with a program," Odom said, "But some of the standard-bearers that you see every four years, we're not worried about them. We know we want them back."