I was nine or 10 years old when I told my sister Santa Claus didn’t exist. I’d grown suspicious upon realizing that the handwriting of my Mom, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus were all the same, as was the tone of the letters the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus left for us every year. I was quite the Encyclopedia Brown, as you can tell.
Anyway, we were in the frozen food section of the local Warehouse Foods (Google it, DC!) when I pulled a Bugs Meany and told my sister the harsh truth. I don’t know why I said it. We weren’t fighting or anything and I don’t think I was especially vindictive in my pre-teen years. I guess we were just trying to decide between frozen peas and frozen carrots and I chose the six words “Santa Claus is Mom and Dad.”
My sister ran to my Mom, who had little choice but to confirm this earth-shattering news as she searched for a carton of milk. And that is how I destroyed my sister’s idyllic childhood.
I bring this up not because I’m already sick of Christmas music and Christmas commercials and Christmas decorations at the stores (seriously, people, we’re still nine days away from Thanksgiving!) but because I felt a little Grinchy yesterday over the unofficial start to college basketball season. While everyone else reveled in watching 24 hours of hoops on ESPN, I grumbled that the entire thing was alternately exploitative and belittling of mid-majors.
Knowing how eager mid-majors are to get the four-letter validation yet not really all that interested in giving them a truly national stage, ESPN shuffles the mid-majors off to the side and turns them into a circus freak show—the collegiate version of the bearded lady—by scheduling pure mid-major games from midnight to noon, when the majority of non-alumni, non-hoops junkie viewers are likely to be battling insomnia or a misplaced remote control. (“What the hell? This isn’t The Price Is Right!”)
So after Stony Brook and Monmouth tip off before dawn and Northeastern and Southern Illinois play before lunch is even served in their respective student unions, the usual suspects are crammed down our throat during normal waking hours. Twelve mid-majors appeared on ESPN between midnight and noon. Four mid-majors appeared on either ESPN or ESPN2 the remainder of the day, but two are mid-majors in name only (Butler and Gonzaga) and two are from conferences that annually flirt with Big Six status anyway (LaSalle and San Diego State).
If this sounds familiar to you, it should: I was ranting about this a year ago this morning, when I somehow managed to tie in the mistreatment of mid-majors during the 24 hours of hoops with the Flying Dutchmen’s narrow loss to UConn in the preseason NIT. Don’t blame me, it was late, I was pecking away in an unfamiliar locale (my Dad’s recliner) and I think the meat on my Subway sandwich had turned.
Obviously I feel the same way 52 weeks later, and I felt a bit like Debbie Downer reading Twitter early yesterday morning—except more reluctant than Debbie to rain on everyone’s parade. “You know, as long as mid-majors continue to acquiesce to ESPN’s every request, we’ll never have the respect we deserve. WAHH WAHH.”
And fortunately, when I did express my displeasure this time around, I wasn’t really declaring the non-existence of Santa Claus. Everyone else on my feed realize Santa Claus doesn’t exist—at least the hoops version, some of my followers are pretty young, they might think the big guy is real and I’m not going to ruin their childhoods too—and agreed the 24 hours of hoops minimizes the mid-majors, but was willing to forgive and forget in exchange for a wall-to-wall day of hoops.
I didn’t really want to contribute to the charade, so that’s why I spent my afternoon watching reruns of Beverly Hills 90210. Oh OK there’s nothing that can lure me from that daily ritual except, oh I don’t know, Hofstra playing North Carolina in men’s basketball Thursday at 5 p.m. on ESPN2. But c’mon. What are the odds of THAT happening?
Of course, it actually is happening (and more on this seismic moment in my life in the next couple days), in something that is just as manufactured by and for ESPN as Tuesday’s 24 hours of hoops. But there will be no hand-wringing over the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic, or declarations that Santa is fake.
In fact, I whole-heartedly approve of ESPN taking over most of college basketball’s pre-season. According to an SI.com article from last year, ESPN has created six pre-season tournaments—all, of course, televised on ESPN—since the NCAA dropped the “two in four” rule (which prohibited teams from playing in more than two multi-team events in a four-year span) in 2006.
ESPN’s increasing role has not been good for everybody: As of last year, only nine of the 30 tournaments not founded by ESPN aired their championship game on national TV. In addition, the number of pre-season tournaments decreased from 58 in 2006 to 35 last year.
But Hofstra has certainly benefited from the rule change as well as ESPN’s dominating presence: This year marks the third year in a row the Dutchmen participate in a multi-team event and the second time they have played in an ESPN-created tournament (the Dutchmen played in the inaugural Charleston Classic in 2008).
And the best part about it? The honesty and the implied sense of respect. Nobody’s pretending these tournaments are some kind of unifying, collective experience. The mid-majors are there—in all the big tournaments, not just the ones run by ESPN—because they are needed to fill out these fields, and the obvious hope among the execs is that the big names dispose of the little guys and create the type of semifinal and finals matchups that will draw the most eyeballs to the tube.
Yet the mid-majors emerge from freak show status and get a chance on the big stage. We get to play the big boys, in a prime-time hour and maybe even on a big-time network. The odds are stacked in our favor, but at least we get an opportunity.
This is not a knock at all on Stony Brook or Northeastern, two schools of whom I am quite fond and two schools who can’t be blamed for doing anything possible to get on ESPN, even if it means playing at ungodly hours. But there’s a better chance of Santa Claus actually shimmying down your chimney Christmas Eve than anybody, outside of loyal alums and mid-major fans, remembering by this time next week—never mind this time next year—the identities of the schools that played at 6 am or 10 am yesterday.
And sure, the odds are nobody—by this time next week, never mind this time next year—will remember who played North Carolina in the first round of the 2010 Tip-Off Classic. But Hofstra has a chance to make sure nobody forgets who played the Tar Heels, and I’ll take that over getting squeezed into the breakfast block of the 24 hours of hoops any year.