As Mali mentioned earlier in the week, the two of us had a discussion during the UConn-Stanford women’s semifinal game about the potential role that ESPN may have played in the rise of Connecticut basketball to the lofty heights of being the only school to win the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in the same year; the Huskies have now accomplished that feet twice, in 2004 and again this year. We all know how Nike money and favoritism has helped to build Oregon football into a major power and as Mali mentioned, the power of ESPN to shape college football is well known. This article isn’t meant to be sour grapes or to take anything away from UConn’s impressive accomplishments and the talented players and coaches they have assembled. Rather, it is meant to look at the power that tv networks can wield on the outcomes of the sports that they cover, something that is increasingly important to be aware of as conference realignment and expansion is now being driven by tv networks (see Big Ten expansion into the New York and DC markets).
Headquartered in Bristol, Connecticut, ESPN launched in 1979. Originally intended as a network to cover all sports in the state of Connecticut, the focus was changed to national sports coverage due to the affordability of distributing the network broadcast nationally via satellite. Despite struggling financially in its early years, ESPN began to become a major force in the sports world with the signing of contracts with the professional sports leagues: the NBA in 1982, the USFL in 1983, and ultimately the NFL in 1987. These contracts, along with the contract that ESPN had signed with the NCAA upon the network’s inception, set the sports network on the path to becoming the dominant media influence in modern sports.
Considering the original intention of ESPN’s creators to make a network that would focus on sports in the state of Connecticut, and its location in nearby Storrs, it isn’t surprising that ESPN and Connecticut have seemed to have a close relationship over the years and that people would wonder if that relationship was at least partially responsible for the success of Connecticut basketball.
Connecticut men’s basketball played their first game in 1901 and finished that first season with a 1-0 record, talk about a grueling schedule. Prior to the creation of ESPN, the Huskies had moderate but not spectacular success, winning 19 conference regular season championships and 2 conference tournament championships over a span of 76 years. During that time UConn appeared in 13 NCAA tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 three times and the Elite Eight once. ESPN’s creation in 1979 didn’t coincide with an immediate increase in the success of the Huskies, in fact UConn didn’t make the NCAA tournament or win a conference championship again until 1990. However since then the Huskies have been one of the top programs in the NCAA, winning 10 regular season and 7 conference tournament championships in a span of 34 years. That marked a notable increase in conference tournament championships but only a slight increase in the rate of winning conference regular season championships, going from winning one ever 4 years before ESPN to winning one every 3.4 years afterwards. The biggest change in the Huskies fortunate came in the NCAA tournament where they made 19 appearance since 1979, reaching the Sweet 16 fourteen times, the Elite Eight 10 times, the Final Four 5 times, and winning 4 NCAA tournament titles.
While that seems like a remarkable increase in NCAA tournament success after the creation of ESPN, was the network responsible for that? Success certainly didn’t come immediately for the Huskies, in fact their performance dropped in the early years after the creation of ESPN as UConn went from winning the conference and making the NCAA tournament the season before the start of ESPN to only making the NIT the next three years and then not even breaking .500 for four straight seasons. Connecticut’s success seems far more tied to the hiring of Jim Calhoun as the head coach for the 1986-1987 season. Calhoun finished with a losing record his first season but led the team to the NIT the following year, starting a run of 18 straights seasons with an NIT or NCAA tournament appearance.
As successful as the Connecticut men’s basketball team, their accomplishments are dwarfed by what the Connecticut women’s basketball team has accomplished. Beginning play in the 1974-1975 season, the UConn women’s team did not enjoy immediate success, in fact the Huskies had losing seasons their first 6 years of existence and 11 of their first 12 seasons. The success of Connecticut women’s basketball is strongly tied to the hiring of Geno Auriemma as head coach for the 1985-1986 season. Like Calhoun, Auriemma finished below .500 his first season but would never have another losing season. The Huskies finally achieved their first bit of success in 1989 when they won their first conference regular season and tournament championship and made their first appearance in the NCAA tournament. From that point on things would never be the same for UConn as they have gone on to win 20 Big East regular season and tournament championships and make 26 appearances in the NCAA tournament, reaching the Sweet 16 twenty-two times, the Elite Eight 20 times, the Final Four 15 times, and won a record 9 NCAA tournaments.
While the success of the Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball teams seem to be most strongly tied to the hiring of Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma as head coaches, that doesn’t mean that ESPN hasn’t played an important role. Coaches that win rarely get fired, regardless of the reason they are winning, unless they are caught cheating of course. UConn, especially the women’s basketball team, has enjoyed greater coverage and exposure form ESPN than many other schools due to a combination of proximity and on court performance. This increased exposure has likely influenced many recruits over the years as we all know that a good number of recruits are excited by the idea of playing somewhere where they will receive large amounts of television time. Geno Auriemma has even acknowledged that importance of exposure from ESPN when discussing the first meeting between women’s basketball powerhouses UConn and Tennessee in 1995. At that time the Lady Volunteers was the major power in women’s basketball, having made 11 Final Fours and won 3 national titles while finishing as the runner-up 3 other times while Connecticut was a program on the rise. At that time women’s basketball was televised even more rarely than it is now so the fact that the meeting between these two teams in January of 1995 was shown nationwide on ESPN was a big deal. The Huskies would win that game 77-66 and would go on to beat Tennessee again a few months later to win their first national title. The exposure from that first game was huge as high school basketball players across the country saw UConn knock off the major power in women’s basketball and even Auriemma has gone on to acknowledge the role that played in recruiting in the following years.
Winning big games while being shown on television is obviously a big boost for any program and the more often a team is on tv, the better the odds are that they will be seen pulling off a big win. However the connection between UConn and ESPN hasn’t always been as simple as the Huskies getting more tv airtime. In 2008 it was revealed that Connecticut arranged a tour of ESPN for star recruit Maya Moore, something that constituted a secondary NCAA rules violation. While no other similar incidents have been confirmed, the fact that ESPN changed their tour policy to “prohibit high school athletes from receiving tours at the request of a college or university athletic official” seems to imply that similar tours had been arranged at the request of universities in the past.
Looking at the numbers, both the Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball teams have enjoyed far more success following the creation of ESPN than they did before the network came into existence and there is evidence that ESPN has been involved in helping the Huskies recruit, both through increased exposure and through at least one instance of a special tour being arranged. However, this cannot be taken as definitive proof that ESPN is majorly responsible for the rise of Connecticut basketball. The increase in success for both teams was also strongly tied to the hiring of new head coaches who have gone on to remarkably successful careers. Perhaps the strongest argument for ESPN not being a major factor is the overall lack of success of Connecticut football, even though it is located just as close to ESPN as the basketball teams. Still, it is almost impossible to dismiss the idea that ESPN played some role in the rise of UConn basketball and that it is important to understand the role that tv networks can play in the success of teams in this age of conference networks driving conference expansion and realignment.