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Some advice for the Pac-10/Big XII hardwood series

I don't know of anyone who thinks the Pac-10/Big XII Hardwood Series is a bad idea. The coaches like it for the increased strength of schedule. The schools like it for the increased television revenue. The fans like it because every other year they get a home game against a major conference opponent (which is something that can be a little hard to come by if you live in, say - Pullman, WA or Manhattan, KS). Riding the coattails of the wildly successful Big Ten/ACC challenge (which the Big Ten finally won this year and it is ENTIRELY TONY BENNETT'S FAULT), it is an event that could bring some well-deserved notoriety to two of the nation's best basketball conferences.

That's why it is so perplexing to hear rumors of its demise. But then again, considering the way this thing is marketed, maybe it's not all that shocking.

Frankly, if you're going to create a competitor to the ACC/Big Ten challenge, you have to execute better than this. Marketing and brand awareness were never Tom Hansen's strong points. Pandering to FSN and the LA television market were, and that's why you haven't seen this challenge under the spotlight.

FSN is a regional sports network covering what should be a national college basketball event. The series would be much better served going entirely with a major sports carrier that reaches homes across the country. That network, of course, is ESPN, which knows no bounds when it comes to shameless self-promotion of events on its very own "worldwide leader in sports" (for example, you'll hear 10 times as much about next week's Monday Night Football matchup than any of the more exciting NFL matchups on Sunday that don't involve the Patriots or Cowboys). ESPN is a sports promotion machine, and by far the biggest mistake of the Big XII/Pac-10 series so far is the failure to hitch their wagons to it. Even lesser matchups could be demoted to ESPN2 and ESPNU, while still gaining the cross-promotion of the mothership, ESPN. (By the way, I still greatly enjoy calling ESPN2 "The Deuce")

[Edit: hat tip to Craig for pointing out the series does have some games on the ESPN family of networks, although ESPN has in fact maligned the Coug game to ESPNU, and the marketing effort isn't as strong if the series tied itself exclusively to the WWL]

It doesn't have to be ESPN, though. Versus is a national network that I don't watch, even though I feel like I should, and even though they have the NHL, and I have a secret love affair with Canada and all things Canadians like. Still, you could sucker a few people in sports bars in Boston into watching WSU/K-State simply by granting it to any national sports network. Which is precisely what Versus is. Or get really creative and see if a TBS or TNT might be interested in branching out into college hoops. People will watch it just for the sake of watching. Do you really think people would have turned the channel over if they got into last night's Texas Tech/Washington game?

Still, a quality series is about more than the TV deal. It's about brand recognition. You watch the Big Ten/ACC challenge because it has a cool name and, like Tony Bennett, you've been suckered into believing the ACC is college hoops' superior conference, handed to us from on high on a silver platter by the Jesus Himself. Or, you just enjoy seeing matchups like Michigan State/North Carolina, which was only a rematch of last year's national championship game. Obviously the Pac-10 and Big XII have big names: UCLA, Kansas, Arizona, Texas. But I couldn't tell you who any of them played last year, or even what the result was. That tells me the conferences aren't doing enough to promote their sexiest matchups. I couldn't even tell you what the marquee matchups are this year. And, even worse, I didn't even know the Pac-10 won in '07, and that the teams tied last year, until I just looked it up. I knew the ACC was dominating their challenge every year until this one. That tells me the message isn't getting out about our little competition.

And let's talk about one of the easiest, most obvious changes you could make: THE NAME. The Big XII/Pac-10 "Hardwood Series"? Why not just call it "A Series of Basketball Games Played on Floors of Hard Wood for the Benefit of Young Men Playing Basketball"? That's only slightly more boring. Why not the "Pac-10/Big XII Shootout"? See, because the schools are in the Western U.S., and back in the 1800s, there used to be a lot of, well... I don't want to ruin the surprise for the Pac-10/Big XII marketing folks. A catchy, more creative name is exactly what this series needs to actually get in the heads of those who don't root for schools in either of the two conferences involved.

And, if all else fails, do something really creative to set yourself apart from the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Maybe make it a 16 team tournament in Vegas. Maybe showcase the games in big cities or major arenas. Or, perhaps just do more to showcase the rabid student sections and the crazy fanbases already present in both conferences. Give out extra tickets to students. Let arenas sell beer.

Do something outside of your comfort zone, and you may end up with a phenomenon, instead of just a copycat, second-rate "Hardwood Series".