Winthrop trailed UNC Asheville by one measly RPI spot.
But the difference felt enormous as the Big South Conference’s two best basketball programs took the league’s 2016-17 regular season championship race to the wire.
RPI -- the ratings percentage index -- is based on a team’s wins and losses and its strength of schedule.
Strength of schedule also could have determined whether the Eagles or Bulldogs would win the regular season title -- and the right to host the conference tournament.
Winthrop was the preseason favorite to win the league championship, and picked by the Big South to compete in the Preseason Tip-Off, a November tournament that ESPN annually hosts and televises. Playing in the tournament meant exposure and money for the conference and the school.
Winthrop’s Tip-Off games were scheduled by ESPN tournament organizers. That meant four of the Eagles’ 29 regular season games weren’t picked by Kelsey.
Winthrop and UNC Asheville both finished the season with a 15-3 record, but Asheville’s loss to Gardner-Webb in the penultimate game broke the tie before RPI could come into play.
Everyone involved was relieved.
“We’ve never gotten to that point where we have to utilize the RPI,” said Big South Conference commissioner Kyle Kallander. “But we also want to break ties by performance on the court, and not have to flip a coin. We don’t think that’s fair either.”
The RPI scenario is emblematic of a wider issue for smaller college athletics conferences like the Big South. How do they pursue potentially lucrative exposure opportunities, like the ESPN Preseason Tip-Off, and ensure competition is as fair as possible?
“It’s a fine line between what’s best for the kids and the players, and what’s best for the league,” Kelsey said. “Both of them are very important.”
A majority of the 32 Division I conferences have very little financial clout in the broader college sports landscape. Consider that the Big South brought in 0.01 percent of the revenue that the SEC made in 2015, according to tax documents compiled in ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer. It’s easy to see how eager the Big South would be to establish a relationship with ESPN. And it’s also easy to see the potential conundrums that could develop.
“Someone gets an advantage when the business of college sports intersects with the competition,” said Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
Compare the Big South’s 2015 reported revenue with 28 other Division I conferences
Hover over the different colored squares to see 29 Division I college athletics conferences’ revenue (before expenses) reported in 2015 tax documents and compiled by ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer. The Big South is the gray rectangle in the bottom right corner:
The Big South doesn’t force schools to participate in the ESPN Preseason Tip-Off, but it strongly nudges them to do so. The league has an agreement with ESPN to provide the tournament what it thinks will be its best representative team each season.
The deal is part of the Big South’s strategic plan to focus on promoting its basketball programs. The league wants to help its teams improve scheduling, get on national TV more often and ultimately earn higher seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
“It helps every member from the Big South if someone from the Big South wins a round in the NCAA Tournament,” said Mark Nagel, a colleague of Southall’s at the University of South Carolina.
Kallander says the ESPN Preseason Tip-Off helps the Big South reach all of the strategic plan’s goals. And Winthrop’s experience in the event last year confirms that.
The Eagles beat Manhattan in a nationally-televised game that started at 8 a.m., part of a 24-hour marathon of college basketball games on ESPN, before knocking off Illinois in overtime. Winthrop won the Big South tournament five months later and earned a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Big South’s highest seed since 2008. Beating Illinois in the Preseason Tip-Off unquestionably helped Winthrop’s NCAA tourney seeding.
“I think the sacrifices that we have to make, whether scheduling uniquely or being part of certain events, I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks,” said Kelsey, who was originally against the Preseason Tip-Off but has warmed to the event after seeing positive impacts on Winthrop’s recruiting and brand recognition. “I give our league credit for negotiating those types of deals.”
Do other small college conferences have preseason MTE deals like the Big South?
How common are agreements with preseason tournaments like the one the Big South has with ESPN? Not very common. The Herald checked with 14 other mid-major college basketball conferences and only three said they had anything similar to what the Big South has with ESPN. Note: an MTE is a multi-team exempt event. It counts as one entry on a team’s schedule, though a team may play in a four or eight-team tournament and end up with two or three games, instead of just one.
Deal with national preseason tournament(s)?
America East Conference
11-year agreement with ESPN guarantees a certain number of appearances for America East schools in ESPN preseason MTE’s.
Western Athletic Conference
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
The league sponsors three preseason tournaments that include MAAC schools.
Atlantic Sun Conference
Big Sky Conference
Big West Conference
Has a deal with ESPN to include one Big West team in the Wooden Legacy tournament each season.
Southwestern Athletic Conference
Pros outweigh the cons?
Kallander said the Big South tries to lobby ESPN so that its teams don’t have to travel all over the country for the Preseason Tip-Off, though those appeals only go so far. It’s unlikely Winthrop would have scheduled Manhattan or Illinois last season because the expenses of those trips.
Travel was one of the negatives Kelsey cited last year. Most Big South schools would prefer to play an SEC or ACC school within a five or six-hour drive. In theory, Winthrop could charter a bus, feed players and coaches relatively inexpensive Subway sandwiches and return home the same night. These are called “buy games,” because if everything goes to plan, the bigger school has bought a home win over a smaller school. The smaller school usually receives between $50,000 and $100,000 to make the trip.
Buy games become even more valuable when flights and hotels aren’t needed. More of the check stays with the smaller school. But that’s not always the case in the ESPN Preseason Tip-Off. Winthrop kept over $82,000 of its paycheck from a 2014 trip to Clemson that it scheduled, compared to just $62,579 from its Illinois Preseason Tip-Off game last season.
“It’s certainly more of a hit to your travel budget for the year,” said UNC Asheville coach Nick McDevitt.
McDevitt’s team was picked for the Preseason Tip-Off this season and felt it had a decent chance of playing at Virginia or Vanderbilt, trips that could be made by bus. The Bulldogs ultimately landed the Commodores, a game played in Nashville, Tenn., but they also had to play at Rhode Island, an expensive trip that required flying and hotel rooms.
Still, the tournament scored the Bulldogs a home game against recently successful mid-major program Monmouth, a matchup Asheville might have struggled to schedule on its own and one that should boost its RPI rating.
“Programs in the Big South, we have to play guarantee games,” said McDevitt, whose Bulldogs beat Monmouth. “And a tournament like that, it’s a lot of money. It kind of checks a lot of boxes for us.”
Winthrop’s Illinois trip vs. its Clemson trip
Compare the expenses from Winthrop’s trip to Illinois in 2016, part of the ESPN Preseason Tip-Off, with a game that the Eagles scheduled on their own in 2014, at Clemson. Winthrop won both games.
Transportation (hotel to game)
The tug-and-pull between lucrative exposure and financial opportunities and competitive fairness has surfaced in other ways in recent years.
Coastal Carolina hosted the Big South tournament from 2013 to 2015, in conjunction with Visit Myrtle Beach, another name for the Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
This was widely unpopular among Big South men’s basketball coaches because Coastal Carolina didn’t win the regular season championship any of the three years it hosted, but was good enough to take advantage of playing at home. Cliff Ellis’ teams won the Big South tournament and went to the NCAA Tournament two out of three years in Conway.
“A destination tournament is cool,” Kelsey said. “There was a little of that at Coastal, but then when you get to the finals and you’ve got to play the Teal on their home floor, you sit there and look around like, ‘this is an unfair advantage,’ in a league where it comes down to that last weekend.”
The league returned to a tournament format last season that rewards winning the regular season. But knowing the contents of Coastal Carolina’s bid in conjunction with Visit Myrtle Beach makes it much more clear why the Big South hosted three tournaments in Conway despite its coaches’ objections.
Visit Myrtle Beach president and CEO Brad Dean said the deal included a $100,000 annual promotional payment from Visit Myrtle Beach to the Big South in return for extensive promotion and advertising at Big South events throughout the year, and especially during the conference tournament.
Each Big South school also established a promotional partnership with Visit Myrtle Beach, with an average annual payout of about $3,500 per institution.
And Visit Myrtle Beach and many of its member businesses, including hotels and restaurants, also incorporated Big South championship promotions in regional advertising. Though no money was exchanged, Dean estimated that incorporation of the Big South into advertising plans was worth $400,000.
The Big South’s total guarantee under the current tournament format is $50,000, paid by the hosting school, according to the policies and procedures document used for the 2017 tournament at Winthrop.
“At the end of the day I don’t think the monetary value that the league saw from it counterbalances how unfair it is to those student-athletes, who fight and scrap and claw every single day for a chance to play in the national tournament,” Kelsey said about moving the tournament from Coastal Carolina. “I feel very strongly about that.”
‘Not everybody is going to be happy’
Ultimately, the Big South’s commitment to improving its basketball results and Coastal Carolina’s departure for the Sun Belt Conference led the league to move away from the Visit Myrtle Beach conference tournament deal. But it still embraces the ESPN Preseason Tip-Off because the event enables the Big South to help its teams do certain things they may otherwise be unable to. And, it helps the league as a whole.
“We felt it was a great opportunity for us to position some of our better teams in a way that gives them the opportunity to be successful against good teams, enhance their strength of schedule,” said Kallander. “There are potential exposure benefits, not to mention a relationship with ESPN and working with them, and the benefits you get through that.”
Having coached and played at bigger schools in bigger leagues, Kelsey was initially a skeptic about the benefits of the Preseason Tip-Off. But he and many others would point out that it’s not just the smaller conferences tackling these debates. Power 5 leagues have some of the same issues that manifest in different ways.
“I think where it becomes a bigger problem is at the small conference level where there is not as much revenue and marketing opportunities,” Nagel said. “But I think it’s a common question that occurs at all levels of play. Each individual member has goals, just as the conference has goals and sometimes there is going to be conflict.
“Regardless of which end you pull toward you’re going to affect everybody and not everybody is going to be happy with the final results.”