Is ESPN Responsible for the Rise of UConn?

Written April 11th, 2014 by Charles

Just how much power does ESPN have to determine champions?

Just how much power does ESPN have to determine champions?

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.

UConn's proximity to Bristol has certainly made them a favorite of ESPN.

UConn’s proximity to Bristol has certainly made them a favorite of ESPN.

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. 

op6b-131954Connecticut 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.

-718fd62654ba6021As 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.

22 Comments

  1. J, WallaceNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    1.Creation of Big East Conference in 1979 and TV exposure

    2.Moore received a tour that the author could have arranged for himself. A UConn AD secretary made the call, so secondary violation
    3. Google ESPN, Boston College AD Gene DeFillipo, Conference Realignment

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  2. DanNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    They got a player a tour? How were they not banned at least a couple if years from the tournament?

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  3. GrahamNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    This is voodoo research. Please explain why UConn has tragically been left out of a legit conference, though the AAC has already done well in football, they won their BCS game, unlike OSU & they own more recent NCs in basketball, both sexes, than the BIG.

    Btw, I’m a BIG fan & a Minnesota-Wisky alum.

    I think it’s fair for any media outlet to give deserved credibility to the local teams. Despite being the World Wide Leader, UConn is in the same state. Why neglect great local stories.

    Calhoun & Geno, to be frank, are phenomenal coaches & that’s the real truth here.

    Lastly, there are plenty of BIG alum working for ESPN, plenty.

    I, for one, would love to see UConn in the BIG. It’s a bit unfair that they are currently in a conference that’s spread over 4 regions of the country. They instantly become regional partners with PSU, Md, and Rutgers & OSU is not too far either.

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  4. AndyNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    The creation and rise of the Big East conference is directly correlated with the creation and rise of ESPN as a sports media enterprise, with strong correlation coefficient. The rise of UCONN athletics as a whole, though, is directly related to the success of the basketball programs under both Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma starting in the late 1980s. Concluding that ESPN is directly related to the rise of UCONN athletics is a false positive, rejection of the null. ESPN is only related to the rise of UCONN athletics over the past 30 years, through UCONN’s membership with the Big East conference.

    The Big East conference was created as a basketball only conference in 1979 by private, catholic colleges in urban centers of the northeast corridor. The incorporation of ESPN coincided within months of the incorporation of Big East basketball and the founding members of both were personally connected. UCONN, was included, as the only public institution at the time when the Big East was founded as certain individuals at the time saw great potential in UCONN. That potential would not be realized until the hiring of Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma and their subsequent successes. By 1982, the league was growing in popularity and success, as was it’s exposure on ESPN. The league members managed to do very well in the 1980s on the basketball court, which helped the symbiotic relationship growth accelerate. The league began incorporating other sports at this time – except for football. Penn State at the time – was lobbying for inclusion in the conference, and was denied membership by the conference. Penn State would later join the Big10. UCONN remained in the division 1-AA Yankee Conference for football until 1997, as all other sports entered the Big East.

    The Big East conference nearly fractured for the first time in 1990 with the impending loss of Syracuse, Boston College, and Pittsburgh due to changes in intercollegiate athletics around division 1A football. Division 1A, Big East football was incorporated, and the chaotic push and pull between basketball and football began in the conference, which lasted until 2011 and had many programs come and go. Based on an in depth feasibility study that included essential work from former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer and conducted throughout 1996 and funded by UCONN, in 1997 the UCONN Board of Trustees voted to upgrade into division 1A with the plan of entering the Big East conference by 2005. The entry into the Big East was accelerated when Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami left the conference in 2003.

    After entering the Big East conference in football in 2004, UCONN earned two co-conference championships, and went 3-2 in bowl games with one BCS appearance before the conference folded.

    The rise and success of UCONN athletics beyond a regional power, dates back approximately 30 years, and is directly related to the absolute will to win, that was installed into the athletic department, students, alumni and administration, and it’s fanbase and supporters by both Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma. The entire athletic department and university as whole owes it’s current stature in athletics and support statewide to the commitment to excellence those two men established and the dedicated alumni, and fan following. ESPN just made the progress over the past 30 years available for viewing audiences nationwide through the Big East conference.

    It would be nice be broadcast on the Big 10 network as a member of the big 10, now that the Big East no longer exists.

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  5. UConn FanNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    1. Big East had the first contract with ESPN – way back when – late 70′s. UConn at the time was considered a lower level player to Cuse, Georgetown, and St. Johns. Calhoun Arrives in 86, auriemma arrives in 79 – off they went – but it took 10 years or more – 2. Conference re-alignment – ACC took alot of the Big East Schools – left behind were Cincy and UConn – alot of fans feel ACC was quietly advised by ESPN – si i dont think your theory hold up otherwise UCONN would be in the ACC not the American Conference

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  6. DanNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    The underlying premise of your article is laughably wrong. You need to do a lot more research.

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  7. SC HuskyNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    This article couldn’t be any more off mark. Ask any UCONN fan & they’ll tell you that ESPN encouraged the ACC to poach Big East schools. This eviserated the once proud Big East. ESPN was more than happy to let UCONN wither on the vine & slip into irrelevancy. We were rejected twice by the ACC & were left behind by the other power conferences. Did ESPN take a discount from the ACC in exchange for inviting UCONN? No! If most UCONN fans had their way, ESPN would be shown the door & kicked the heck out of CT! ESPN is no friend of UCONN!!

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  8. MaliBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    LOVE all the UConn fan comments/clarifications here… Thanks!

    Question- given that conference realignment is mostly football centered, where do you think the Huskies end up once all the dust has settled?

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  9. KenNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    Well done, Charles, thank you.

    First, for as long as I’ve followed collegiate sports, I’ve always considered UConn to be a “basketball” school. I’ve never thought of their football program to be much above club level. That’s just their culture, as I see it.

    I can see how, when making a visit to campus, the possibility of a “side trip” to ESPN studios/HQ would be appealing to a high school prospect. I mean what is Georgia Tech/ University of Georgia going to do; run prospects by the CNN studios?

    Annnd, I think that your last sentence is a nice recap of the situation.

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    AndyNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    This unfortunately is the perception out there. IT’s not accurate.

    Read this:

    http://uponfurtherreviewct.blogspot.com

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  10. AndyNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    That UCONN can succeed without the Big East conference, is pretty evident now. That UCONN can succeed without Jim Calhoun, is also pretty evident now. Both things were very much doubted by many people (other than UCONN people) when the Big East folded. Geno has showed no signs of slowing down, but sooner or later a transition will need to happen there. We’ve endured 3 disasterous seasons in football under Paul Pasqualoni – product of a bad hire by a bad AD. We’ve got a new AD who’s a Michigan guy (sorry) and a promising new young coach. UCONN football will recover, and the new league has some decent programs.

    THe Big East conference folding, left a huge hole in the northeast corridor intercollegiate sports market. If the Big 10, really wants the northeast corridor – it’s pretty foolish to leave UCONN out.

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    MaliBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    The challenge, as most folks who are regular hear are tired of hearing me talk about, is that B1G membership is not only about sports/TV revenue.

    The research aspect of the CIC and B1G consortium dwarfs the athletic dollars… so any addition to the conference will need to keep that in mind as well. And UConn not being an AAU member could be a deal breaker.

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    AndyNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    The AAU could be a deal breaker, but I think that if you do the ‘research’ you’ll find that the only reason that UCONN is not an AAU institution, is the same reason that they aren’t in the Big10 as well….they haven’t been asked to join, it’s not qualifications. They need an invitation. UCONN is qualified for both.

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    JudyNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    Not all the Big 10 schools are AAU members…

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    CharlesNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    The only Big 10 school that isn’t an AAU member is Nebraska and they were an AAU member at the time of joining the conference. They had their membership revoked after becoming a member and many people have said that if their AAU membership had been revoked earlier, they would not have gotten into the Big Ten.

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    MaliBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    April 12th, 2014 at 5:31 am

    And the reason that their AAU membership was revoked, in part, was really petty. Their med center is not in Lincoln, but in Omaha… and that impacted the way that the AAU viewed their research capabilities.

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  11. timNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    What more could ESPN have done over the past 10 years to destroy UCONN athletics?

    Kill their conference? Done

    Make them compete with a tiny fraction of the revenue? Done

    Put their FB games at the worst possible hours? Done.

    Give their FB team terrible match ups? Done

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    MaliBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    Wait- ESPN controls UConn’s schedule? I thought athletic departments did that…

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  12. CharlesNo Gravatar
    April 11th, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    The comments have been very enlightening, especially Andy’s on the history of the Big East. I should have included and discussed the rise of the Big East and its role in helping the rise of UConn. I will admit some of that is due to writing this article while incredibly jet lagged and I probably should have delayed the article until next week for that reason. That said, as the comments have pointed out, the Big East had one of the first contracts with ESPN and that contract led to more exposure for the conference which played a role in its rise in power. That exposure also benefited UConn but I should have properly included the discussion of the Big East as a crucial agent in that.

    I fully agree, and I do state in the article that UConn’s success is most strongly tied to the hiring of Calhoun and Auriemma and I have great respect for the coaching talents of both of them.

    The idea for this article came from a discussion in a bar but I had seen fans of several different schools around the country comment on various message boards over the years about ESPN’s fondness for Big East basketball and particularly UConn and several of those posters also speculated that this helped UConn rise to the level of a national power. Now obviously the relationship between the two is not as a direct or as intentional as Nike and Oregon and T. Boone Pickens and Oklahoma State where the success of those programs were largely driven by an influx of money. However, the perception around the country for a long time was that ESPN had a fondness for UConn and the Big East and that increased level of exposure was good for Connecticut. This is especially true for the UConn women’s basketball team which enjoys far more appearances on ESPN than any other team; of course this is very much a symbiotic relationship as no women’s team other than Tennessee can bring even close to the number of viewers as UConn.

    Now obviously ESPN’s favor has drifted to the South, as evidenced with their current perceived love affair with SEC football which has helped the SEC grow based on the analysis of many people, see my link at the beginning of the article. ESPN’s basketball allegiance has also shifted clearly to the ACC based on their assistance in gutting the Big East and clearly they can’t be considered a friend of UConn now.

    I also didn’t mean to imply that UConn is the only team that has ever benefited from having more tv exposure than other schools, I am a fan of Ohio State and obviously being on tv more than schools such as Indiana or Northwestern has benefited OSU immensely over the years.

    I am pleased to see the positive view toward the Big Ten expressed by many of the Connecticut fans here. I have had a fondness for UConn since I was a kid, I really liked the mascot when I was 7 or so and I have family who went to school there. I have said for a number of years that UConn would be a good add to the Big Ten athletic wise, obviously top notch basketball and a football program that has grown and has a lot of potential. The biggest issue with the Big Ten adding UConn is on the academic side where the Big Ten/CIC has made it fairly clear that being an AAU member is pretty much a requirement for any school to be added to the conference.

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  13. Roseanne PatrickNo Gravatar
    April 12th, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    The UCONN games are not played on ESPN except for the occasional most challenging one. This past season all of the Men’s and Women’s games were telecasted from SNY … who did an excellent job for all of us fans who couldn’t attend games.

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  14. SteierNo Gravatar
    April 12th, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    I guess ESPN has been a boon to UCONN’s domination of football as well. ESPN favored ACC basketball + Big East prior to the break-up, but in men’s basketball ‘Cuse was the favored school. Women’s basketball got play because they have been the strongest team and willing to play anyone, and ESPN televises that game — rarely any other games. I know OSU is a great research school. This article needed research which drew conclusions. Not conclusions in search of research.

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  15. EricNo Gravatar
    April 12th, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    As a Connecticut native transplanted to Ohio I have always dreamed of our team reaching the highest levels of competition in football. Taking my son to an Ohio State game this year for the first time was his first chance to see what college football was all about. I know that if given the chance (as we were given when the Big East started back in 1980) we can rise to the same level. Our academics are stellar in the undergraduate program and we recently have received $1 billion to help advance our science, math, engineering and technology research and tech park has got industries clamoring to be the first in. Our Medical School has the leading STEM Cell research program that has researchers from all over the country coming in to do work. We are second in the Capital Cup right now with championships in basketball (times 2) and field hockey and we just missed out on a championship in Men’s Soccer. But most important our football fiasco we had for three years is over. We had the worst AD and worst hire ever. No fan wanted Coach P but we were stuck with him until our new AD said enough! Coach Diaco is young, energetic and he will make Uconn relevant not next year but this year. We lost so many close games (Michigan included) that with his new strength and conditioning program and attitude we can easily win those this year. We don’t want to be part of the ACC, we are a strong proud flagship university that owns the entire New England region and NYC. Even Peter Gammons said that Uconn dominated the air waves even as baseball season started up. BC doesn’t even register up there. The B1G will hit a home run if they get Uconn to make up for Taking Rutgers who may be a fine academic school, but may be the worst athletic program overall in the nation.

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