A little over a year ago Rick Giles and his Research Park-based sports marketing agency, the Gazelle Group, bucked the college sports establishment and launched the College Basketball Invitational as an outlet for otherwise talented teams that got relegated to the bleachers by the NCAA/NIT lottery (U.S. 1, January 23, 2008). In the process he pulled off such a coup that teams left out actually got in his face about it.

He took it as a compliment.

This year, as Gazelle gets ready to run the second CBI — kicking off on Tuesday, March 17, with teams being announced on Sunday, March 15 — Giles also gets to revel in the irony of being a target. CollegeInsider.com, an online sports newscaster, teams ranker, and rumor mill is launching the CollegeInsider.com Tournament to rival not just the NCAA and NIT, but to directly challenge the CBI. Like the CBI, CollegeInsider looks to scoop up those otherwise solid teams that the NCAA’s 65 and the NIT’s 32-team brackets ignore. In other words, it’s trying to scoop up what would have automatically been the CBI’s A-list.

Giles is trying to take this as a compliment too. “I guess I can take it as an imitation-as-flattery thing,” he says. “But I don’t know.”

Ten months ago it was a different story. Having gambled his reputation — not to mention “a lot” of money — on a tournament the NCAA establishment might have bet against had it given the CBI enough respect to warrant calling a bookie, Giles could afford to gloat. Gazelle had run a successful tournament, ratings were better than anyone had hoped, the money came back, and, to even Giles’ surprise, the press doused him with praise. One Virginia reporter, in fact, credited the CBI with recharging interest in the University of Virginia’s basketball program.

In January, Giles learned of CollegeInsider’s plans and subsequently has had to rethink his own for this year’s CBI. He won’t talk about it, of course, but he does say Gazelle “has a little bit more incentive” to woo teams that might be iffy in the NCAA’s eyes.

And while all this might sound as if college sports is wrapped in a kevlar blanket amid the recession, Giles says sports are more vulnerable now than possibly ever. The reason? Actually, it’s the very thing that got his CBI noticed nationally last year — television.

While money in sports is made in TV contracts, sports themselves are hurting from the sort of fragmentation TV has been causing for decades. “I can’t think of many things that are more discretionary than sports,” Giles says. People are watching their money and are increasingly unwilling to pay soaring ticket prices to watch a game in person. Likewise, corporations have quashed perks and promotions that involve free tickets. People, Giles says, do just as well to stay home and watch the game on any of the 180 sports networks on TV. And by the way, those lucrative sportscast contracts are only really lucrative at the ESPN, Fox, or another major-level player.

The CBI is not Gazelle’s only college basketball tournament. Gazelle oversees or has presented several preseason hoops tournaments and events: the Legends Classic, the Blue Ribbon Challenge, the All-American Shootout, the 2K Sports Classic, the O’Reilly CBE Classic. But the CBI is Gazelle’s most ambitious tournament. Its success — enough to land Gazelle a contract with HDNet to broadcast the 2009 invitational — might lead other agencies hoping to join the post-season party.

But Giles will deal with that later. For now he is thrilled to have the CBI on HDNet, which reaches a wider audience than Fox College Sports and which aired the 2008 Legends Classic tournament in November. Plus, he has his lessons learned from last year. This time around Giles plans to get firmer commitments from teams up front — a task he suspects will be easier now that everyone knows he’s serious — and he has altered the scheduling of the first day. Last year four games were aired on day one and this year there will be only two — easier for viewers to digest.

Though he won’t say how, Giles says Gazelle’s approach to teams will be different this year as well. Whether the second CBI will be a success Giles will not speculate. “An indicator of what we’ve achieved will be how teams commit this year,” is all he says.

— Scott Morgan

The Gazelle Group, 475 Wall Street, Princeton 08540; 609-921-0133; fax, 609-921-2332. www.gazellegroup.com.

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