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Gonzaga vs. Tennessee Showcased the Pay-Per-View Potential for College Basketball

At a time when preseason interest in college basketball feels at a low point, Gonzaga vs. Tennessee gave us all reason to be excited.

The 2022-23 college basketball regular season tips off in one week, but unless you’re a bona fide hoops head, that’s probably nowhere near the top of your radar. After all, we’re in the middle of the World Series, the NFL is in full swing, and the NBA is a few weeks in with plenty of storylines already emerging.

This problem is nothing new for college hoops, a sport that gives ESPN more inventory than any other but struggles to compete with the pro leagues (and college football) in its opening weeks.

The Gonzaga and Tennessee men played their part last week to put college basketball in the public eye. The pair of national powers met up on Friday in a charity Pay-Per-View exhibition in Frisco, Texas. And while the result literally does not matter — and we’d caution everyone not to draw any conclusions from it — the Vols’ 99-80 win has provided us with plenty of storylines as we count down the days until the season starts.

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For now, we can talk about how Tennessee shot 8-for-14 from distance in the first half and held the Bulldogs to 24% shooting in the second half. We also got an early look at National Player of the Year candidate Drew Timme and saw Indiana State transfer Tyreke Key (26 points, 4-7 3PT) excel against elite competition.

Now, imagine if we had a lot more of these. Imagine if, in addition to their usual exhibitions against D-II schools or so-called “secret scrimmages” where coaches can work their stuff out, there were more big-name teams playing each other publicly in October. The NCAA would need to change its rules to allow teams to play a third exhibition game (or coaches would need to sacrifice a closed-door game), but it would benefit everyone involved. And Gonzaga vs. Tennessee was the best example possible.

The Pay-Per-View College Basketball Opportunity

Two things can be true at the same time: There should be more charity exhibition PPV games and not every charity exhibition game belongs on PPV.

But when you have two heavyweights going at it? Oh yes. Texas played Arkansas on the men’s side last week and it wasn’t on TV or streaming anywhere. To the Longhorns’ credit, their women’s game against DePaul was on LHN, but talk about a missed opportunity on the men’s side.

The crew that organized the Gonzaga vs. Tennessee game executed this to perfection. For $9.99, fans at home were treated to two-and-a-half hours of content. Yes, that included the game and the requisite analysis from the broadcast crew. It also featured in-game interviews with former players from both sides, coach interviews during live-action (which, honestly, were funnier than anything), and plenty of info about the McLendon Foundation, the organization the event was raising money for.

Those streaming the game on ppv.com also had the option to interact with other fans via a live chat function and were able to upload their own reaction videos, shown on a bar below the game stream.

pay-per-view college basketball

The entire production wouldn’t have worked for a game that matters. But for one that means nothing and features some of the best in the sport? It was perfect. Texas and Arkansas could have excelled in this space over the weekend. As a Connecticut native, I can promise you that if the UConn women did one of these with Notre Dame or Stanford next November, the demand would be through the roof.

There’s an opportunity to get everyone involved and the powers that be in college basketball should take full advantage — on PPV or, quite literally, anywhere else that people can tune into.

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Making it Work

Here’s what I’d do, but feel free to go nuts with your own scenarios. There are no bad ideas. I’d take the three Fridays before the college basketball season starts, thereby avoiding conflict with college football or the NFL, and load them up with high-profile charity exhibitions. You can even align with football in a few cases — Notre Dame played UNLV on the gridiron last week. What if the Rebels and Irish played in South Bend on the court the night before?

The games with the most national appeal would be available on PPV, where fans could pay by the game or buy a package that includes every game — I’ll let smarter people than me come up with the prices. You could have a few windows of games or have several going on at once (think an NCAA Tournament quad box but in October).

As for everyone else? Encourage as many teams in Division I as possible to play charity exhibitions. If you can get local TV coverage, great! If not, stream them on athletics sites. There are causes that everyone can raise money toward, and even if it’s just on the super-local level, I’d be willing to bet you can find some interested fans.

At a time when Midnight Madness isn’t even at midnight anymore, and when more coaches are opting for secret scrimmages over exhibition games, fan access to and interest in their favorite teams in the preseason is at a low point. The issue is compounded this season, especially, by a disturbing lack of high-profile matchups in the first week of the season.

So let UCLA play Loyola Marymount and raise a few bucks for an LA-based charity. The same goes for Portland and Portland State in the northwest. Heck, maybe there are enough fans in Boston willing to watch Providence play BC that they could build a new Dunkin on either side of the Cask n Flagon. Let’s make it happen and find out.

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