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Volume 26 No. 45
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The Basketball Tournament Founder Talks Growth, ESPN TV Deal

ESPN channels broadcast 24 games of this year's tournament over a three-week period

The Basketball Tournament, a 64-team, single-elimination, winner-take-all tournament for $2M, concludes tonight at 9:00pm ET on ESPN at Wintrust Arena, and TBT Founder & CEO Jon Mugar spoke with THE DAILY about the event's future and other innovations in basketball. Below are excerpts from the Q&A with Mugar, some of which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You’ve received significant exposure on ESPN. How has that partnership helped TBT grow?
Mugar: We’re still in the original deal. We’re in our fifth year on TV with them and our sixth year overall. So, year one we put on the tournament without a partner and then they contacted us about streaming the championship on ESPN3. And then from there, starting in '15, we went to TV. And I think at that point we had maybe seven games on. This year we’ve had 24 games in a three-week period.

Q: What are your expectations for TV viewership and attendance tonight?
Mugar: For viewership, I’m really excited about the spot that we have because we’re coming on at a perfect time for our fanbase. We feel in the past four or five years that our fanbase demos pretty young, predominantly male, 18-35. We like to fall late in primetime. So, tonight is really ideal for us. At this point, we’re 120% over ticket sales from '18 (over attendance) and our ticket revenue is up over 350%. We’re going to be in the biggest venue we ever have been for the championship and we’re anticipating a great crowd -- possibly the biggest ever. It’s kind of a leap for us to do it, but we feel pretty good about the reception so far in Chicago.

Q: You’re in your 2nd year playing to a score at the end of the game and not the clock: what has the feedback been like?
Mugar: The feedback last year when we first did it was 50% positive, 50% absolutely hating it. This year, the feedback is 95% positive, 5% still resistant to it. I’m a basketball purist. I wouldn’t ever think about doing anything drastic to it unless I thought it was really well thought out. But it makes so much sense. And we’re seeing it now playing out this year again -- how much more exciting, intense and pure the play is at the end of the game. The game clock is really detrimental to that style of play.

Q: Why use a winner-take-all format?
Mugar: Obviously, to create maximum intensity, and to change the financial structure of how professional sports pays out its athletes. So, everyone’s collective incentive is on a team winning. The collective incentive isn’t on having a good game personally, having a lot of points personally, playing a lot of minutes personally. Winner-take-all eliminates all of that. And the style of basketball as a result of this format is extremely intense every possession. It’s extremely smart every possession. And so the hope there is that fans would really dial into that and see players having a lot of fun playing smart together.

Q: What are your goals for TBT moving forward?
Mugar: Our ceiling is March Madness. I’m not saying we’ll get there in one year, or two years, or 10 years or 20 years, but I really kind of view this as a lifetime for me. I wanted to be able to keep respecting the sport, implementing things like the Elam Ending (playing to a score) if it calls for it, and having some impact on the game is fantastic for me. We’re experiencing ridiculous growth for going into year six. From five to six, we’re up 80% in sponsorships. I really think this could be the biggest tournament in the world, and I don’t plan on stopping or it to stop growing until we get there.