Just imagine March Madness on steroids. Almost 100 teams comprised of basketball players from around the country. The teams are internet driven. The entry is free and the purse is $1 million in cold, hard cash. It may seem like I’m trying to sell you a snowboard in the Mojave Desert, but this link explains how The Basketball Tournament can turn your snow-sinking pockets into a hot summer come up. TBT is the next big thing in high-purse tournament basketball.
The Shadow League spoke with Jonathan Mugar, creative genius and founder of The Basketball Tournament and it’s only right that his high-flying extravaganza begin just as NCAA March Madness chucks us the deuces.
Mugar: The inspiration is definitely March Madness. I love that event and the idea is...Why can’t you basically do a March Madness-style tournament, open it up to anyone and put it on a professional level? So it reflects the high stakes of March Madness and it’s also about accessibility in giving fans an opportunity to create a franchise from scratch each year and play the part of a team owner or general manager or even play.
Gambler: You bridged the social media explosion with the fact that everyone loves basketball and believes they can play it at a high level. The cash prize of $1 million for the winning team is also a tremendous draw.
Mugar: It’s a wide open field. The restrictions for last year’s tournament were; 18-and-over and anybody could play. So it’s a professional event of course, so you lose amateur status by playing. Aside from current college kids --who we warn of that risk obviously --anybody can play. It’s really made possible by social media and that’s how we get the word out and that’s how we arrive at our field.
Gambler: You recently inked a TV deal with ESPN to air your tournament. How did that come about?
Mugar: They were watching our event last year. We put it on as a $500,000 winner-take-all tournament. It was based in Philadelphia last year and they were keeping an eye on it. When we started playing and they saw that it was for real and players started showing up and the ones that were showing up were really good, they reached out and said, “What are you doing with the final game?” We said, “Nothing,” and they wanted to stream it through ESPN 3. So we did that. We put the championship game on June 28, 2014. It was a great game and Notre Dame Fighting Alumni won and ESPN had a great experience with it so we began to talk about bringing the tourney to TV in 2015.
Gambler: What in your personal or professional background influenced you to begin this huge endeavor? This year you have almost three times as many teams as you had in your jump off season.
Mugar: Most of my work has been in comedy and comedy production so that didn’t really apply to this. But I played Division III basketball at Tufts University in Boston. I’ve been a life-long basketball fan and I’ve always loved the game.
Gambler: The entries for the tournament have to be voted in via the internet. Explain how The Basketball Tournament (TBT) works.
Mugar: Last year we selected over 32 teams but I think 100 applied. That was just for that inaugural tournament, which was confined to that one region in Philadelphia, but this year we are expanding to four regions across the country. We’re going to do a Northeast, South, Midwest and a West region and those will take place in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago and L.A. So up to 24 teams in each region, and up to 96 new teams total. Plus we are inviting our defending champion back so there will be a total of up to 97 teams.
Gambler: Does the demise of once prominent street ball brands such as And 1 -- which created a market and avenue for guys who were considered urban hoops legends to cash in on their basketball prowess -- help a competition like yours attract elite talent?
Mugar: Well JR...There’s all college rules in our tournament. There are a few variations. We have three Division I refs per game...but the whole model and format was to put on team first basketball and have winning be the only thing that matters. I’m not too familiar about how And 1 ran their last few years but that’s what we’re focused on...just putting on a high stakes, team focus basketball event.
Gambler: Another interesting aspect of this tournament is how the prize money is divided. The fans who voted online to help this team get into the tournament also get paid when the team wins correct?
Mugar: A million dollars goes to the team and 5 percent of that goes to the fan group of the winning team. It’s free to enter the tournament. We don’t ask anything of the players. All they have to do is sign up through the website and there’s a two-month application period from April 1 to June. A team’s ability to get into the tournament is contingent upon them recruiting enough fans, so fans are a big part of these teams and that’s the message there. We want to reward fans as much as the players.
Gambler: What were your overall impressions of the first tournament in Philly?
Mugar: What surprised me from the first tournament was that no one including me knew how that model would work with us admitting teams based on popularity. We could have had a field of pretty bad teams, but the model worked and I was surprised at how high-level the basketball was. Looking at our 32-team field…a lot of broadcast quality basketball games were being played at a high level and I think that’s what interested ESPN and really encouraged me for this year.
Gambler: After this season will you be looking to expand or maybe even have multiple tournaments?
Mugar: That’s a good question J.R., but I’m really focused on August 2nd and our $1 million winner-take-all game, so I can’t look beyond that. If it goes well, I’ll definitely be looking to expand the model. I definitely want to keep growing the prize and bringing the experience to as many people as possible.
Gambler: Who were some other contributors to helping you get The Basketball Tournament off the ground?
Mugar: I had a great advisor group of sports industry veterans in Tony Ponturo, Andy Dolich and Len DeLuca . The three of them were some of the first people I sent the idea to and they were on board from the beginning. They really helped me shape it.
Gambler: Are more people showing interest in the tournament since it was announced that you inked an ESPN deal?
Mugar: Yeah, it’s funny…the support on the level of players is pretty astounding. This is really the most fun part of the open tournament model. You start to hear rumors of the types of teams that are going to enter and a lot of players flocked to the situation immediately when we announced our partnership with ESPN and the $1 milllion purse. So we are expecting a pretty diverse group of teams from college alumni teams to charity teams to celebrity –based teams. April 1 when we start the application process on our site, it’s going to get pretty interesting.
Gambler: Do you have any women ballers representing on these teams?
Mugar: Yes, we had former WNBA baller and UNC great Nikki Teasley, who was the general manager of a team and she played and they lost their first game to a team comprised of Villanova Final Four players like Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher, but Nikki played well.
The Basketball Tournament’s finals will be held in an undetermined NYC location. Mugar’s creation is another example of how social media has changed the sports world and forced people to interact via computer and increased the glory and financial possibilities for people who aren’t at the top of the food chain in a given sport, but share a pro’s passion for the game.