This has been a disappointing week for UConn. Though the basketball program is winning, 6-1, in fact, it’s in a transitional phase of its history, and the uncertainty about the future of the school’s league affiliation, Kevin Ollie’s contract, etc., is unnerving for Huskies fans. (See our live chat this week.)
This, here, is just business. The sparse crowds the Huskies have been drawing, including the 8,705 to the XL Center for the game against New Hampshire on Thursday night, should raise some concern.
The UConn men’s basketball brand has been so strong for so long, bolstered by a national championship just 19 months ago, but at the moment the profile and relevance suffer from the postseason ineligibility, from the ACC rejection, from the deteriorating state of The Big East and the retirement of its iconic coach, Jim Calhoun.
I dialed up Darren Rovell, ESPN business reporter, one of the most knowledgeable folks out there on the business side of sports, and asked for some of his thoughts. …
“The interesting thing,” Rovell said, “is when you combine the UConn basketball brand from five years ago, and where the football brand was [two years ago], you could say that collectively they are bigger than Rutgers. But the sentiment, whether it is true or not, is that [Rutgers represents] New York. A lot of what’s happening is conjecture. What fans have to understand is, the schools and those [conferences] wooing the schools like to represent to fans that this is math, the reasons are obvious and makes sense financially. But it’s not really true. The people making these decisions, boards of trustees – a whole bunch of people who may not have intimate knowledge of how athletics necessarily works. To them, there may be the perception that UConn is ‘the pro sports team of Connecticut.’ And that’s a negative perception when compared to New York or D.C. [as in Rutgers and Maryland going to The Big 10]. Then the fact that the icon that was Jim Calhoun is no longer [coach], they might ask ‘what are we buying here?’ And the uncertainty is a disservice to UConn.”
In hiring Kevin Ollie, Rovell says, UConn has done well in a business sense. His name resonates with UConn fans.
But in the meantime, there is the one year’s postseason ineligibility. Programs like Penn State and Southern Cal football, Rovell notes, have been limiting the damage of their bans by “bridging the gap,” being as successful as possible during this season. The Huskies, with their win over Michigan State, have made a similar mark so far and can strengthen that bridge with a win over NC State on Tuesday night with the nation watching.
But going forward, if UConn remains in The Big East, it will be playing teams like Tulane, Central Florida, Temple and Memphis instead of Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia and Louisville.
“If you look at opponents, if UConn is not great, not killing people, then going to a game is not exciting,” Rovell said. “If UConn is great, you don’t know how great they are, because you’re not playing the best. If third in the Big East meant a sixth seed in the tournament, what will third in the ‘new’ Big East get you? Who the hell knows? The games themselves mean less, that’s frustrating.”
How to combat it? Simple, Rovell says. Schedule up.
“You can minimize the damage by and try to have confidence in your brand,” he said. “You tell you’re your fans and recruits, ‘what happened is beyond our control. But what we can control is scheduling.’ What UConn CAN do is schedule the most robust nonconference schedule anyone has ever seen. The message would be, ‘we have to be in a position to start earlier, but if we take care of business in our weaker conference we can be the same No.1 we were before.’”
The bottom line is, UConn has a strong basketball brand – too strong to just fade away overnight, here in Connecticut at least. When Jim Calhoun arrived in 1986, his No.1 opponent was “apathy,” against which he was undefeated.
“You can fall off map and it can happen very quickly,” Rovell said, “but a collegiate brand naturally lasts longer, has a greater, growing fan base, because it is not so easy for fans to neglect the name on the front of the jersey. Pro sports teams can fall harder because they don’t have the ability to recruit, there is greater ability for fan attrition. College fans are used to players staying for only two or three years, you’re used to the cycle. People do get sicker of losing quicker today, the amount of times horrible seasons and bad losses are memorialized on twitter does that, bad moments are memorialized over and over everywhere you look. … But it would take a while for UConn fans to say ‘I don’t care.’”