The 10th Ivy League playoff in history is set to tip off in a few hours, and it will not be broadcasted nationally. The Ivy League’s hands are tied. And the sad thing is, the league pushed itself to that point.
In the Ivy League, tradition is spelled a-r-c-h-a-i-c. It’s that traditional (read: old) thought process that led to Saturday’s Ivy League playoff between Harvard and Yale being broadcast only on the American Sports Network, which essentially means that it’ll air on various local affiliates across the nation, and ESPN3, an online channel for the World Wide Leader that will air almost any sport as long as the customer is willing to pay a fee.
For sports like cricket and ultimate frisbee – fringe sports that are trying to gain popularity in America – what ESPN3 has to provide is enough. For arena football or lacrosse, a local affiliate station is good enough. But for the Ivy League, a basketball conference that provides just as much excitement as any, it shouldn’t be.
The fact that the league had to settle for a deal to air the playoff that limits the amount of exposure people will have is, as an isolated example, understandable. ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS – all of these stations make deals with conferences to show their conference tournaments before the season begins, and considering the last-minute nature of whether or not there would even be a playoff, it is hard, if not fiscally negligent, to allow for one of those networks to leave a two-hour slot open just in case.
CBS Sports and its CBS Sports Network, which aired a number of Ivy League contests this year, has enough other men’s and women’s conferences fighting to get publicity that, when the Ivy League tries to slide in at the last minute, the network really doesn’t have to listen.
But that’s just it, the Ivy doesn’t feel the need to play the game. ESPNews is showing SportsCenter all day Saturday. If any other mid-major conference were in the position that the Ivy found itself in after Dartmouth beat Yale last Saturday night, it would have figured out a way to get that game as much publicity as possible. But for the Ivy, ESPN3 and local affiliates are enough (the Philadelphia affiliate airing the contest is bookending the game with the Bernie Mac classic Mr. 3000 and an episode of The Middle).
This stems from this belief that even though Harvard and Yale are playing Division I basketball in the same way that Ohio State, Boise State or Alabama State are, the Ivy League administration believes that its teams don’t have to “play the game.” They don’t need to fight to get airtime with the WAC, or the SWAC or C-USA.
And for those who aren’t involved in the day-to-day operations of these teams, then that mentality makes sense. The Ivy League has an impressive history all its own that stands well outside of the fringes of college basketball at this point, and anyone who has a link to an Ivy League institution knows how much they value being different, special and above the fray. The current sports landscape, admittedly, is an ugly one, in which money is power. If looking at it through that lens, one may even call it admirable that the powers at be would rather not step into the reality that is college basketball.
But what those who carry that idea happily forget is that this is not a fairy tale in which the 14-game tournament happens in a bubble, and that this isn’t your father’s Ivy League. Tommy Amaker and James Jones have programs that can compete just as well with the juggernauts as other mid-majors that will make the tournament. These programs, and Cornell before them, are real, competitive teams. They deserve to be treated as such. The Ivy League has had a few national broadcast deals in the past – HDNet and DirecTV in the early 2000s,and of course, more recently, NBC Sports Network. But the visibility for the aforementioned competitive Ivy programs still isn’t where it needs to be.
The Yale Daily News Sports Twitter feed blew up on Saturday as Yale took on Dartmouth, as the paper’s twitter did its best to help fans craving information to be in the know. In another world, rather than having to rely on Twitter for the most up-to-date, easily accessible news, people from across the country could have found that contest on TV. That game brought as much excitement as any that I’ve seen since, and at a certain point, those making these decisions about how much publicity the league is going to receive are doing a disservice not only to the game itself, but the student-athletes who are playing it.
If the Ancient Eight’s teams are competing with opponents from other conferences on the court, and they are, it’s time for the Ivy League to start competing for the publicity as well.