The hour was at least the 11th, and maybe the 12th, and Rick Giles thought it was all over but the signatures. Barely into his first year running his own sports marketing firm, the young man who had broken from the largest sports marketing company on earth had arranged a college basketball tournament featuring Penn, Penn State, LaSalle, and Marquette in Atlantic City to benefit cancer research.
And then, without warning, the guys from the Atlantic City Convention Center backed out.
“Needless to say, I went home discouraged,” Giles says.
When he got home, his head full of doubt, his wife, Janet, told him to do what he always did when life threw garbage in his face — “Sit there for a while and think about it.”
The next morning, Giles met up with the guys who had bailed on him. At Burger King. Over breakfast, Giles told them the facts: they couldn’t just pull out; too much was at stake; too many people involved; and a good cause was on the line. Then, before the wrappers were crumpled and on their way to the trash cans, Giles had convinced the Convention Center to put the tournament back on. More than a decade later, the Coaches Vs. Cancer tournament has raised more than $4 million on behalf of the American Cancer Society.
That moment in 1995 was for Rick Giles, president and then-only employee of the Gazelle Group sports marketing firm, the brink; the moment that comes a year after wild enthusiasm cools into the reality of the day-to-day and starts tipping into unnerving hope that somehow things will work themselves out. He had left a high-paying, high-powered career at IMG, the largest by far sports marketing firm in the world, located on Wall Street in Manhattan, and set up an office on, well, Wall Street in Princeton’s Research Park. There he kept company with one computer, one phone, one fax machine, and four bare walls.
The lesson he learned while at this brink — to simply not give up, no matter how much no you hear and how improbable the goal — has served him well. Thirteen years later, the walls of this same office are lined with autographed basketballs that commemorate the tournaments Gazelle has produced and the place bustles with 16 employees. And Rick Giles is about to inaugurate a basketball tournament to rival the NIT, in the shadow of the NCAA.
This March, as office pool players, armchair coaches, and legions of fans revel in the fervor of March Madness, the Gazelle Group will launch the College Basketball Invitational, an ambitious 16-team tournament that Giles hopes will both compete with and complement the NCAA’s 65-team tourney and the 32-team NIT championship.
The idea, says Giles, stems from last season’s NCAA rankings, which left a number of solid clubs — such as Kent State, Akron, and, most notably Connecticut, a nationally recognized powerhouse that won the NIT in 1998 and the NCAA in 1999 and 2004 — out of the picture. “A lot of good teams didn’t get in,” he says. And if someone were to make a tourney for just those teams, he says, “the bracket still looks pretty good.”
Giles created a mock bracket of just such teams. Broken down into the north, west, south, and midwest regions, along the CBI’s planned lines, the field featured some intriguing matchups. The east, particularly, which pitted 26-7 Akron against 19-12 Dayton in Giles’ 2007 fantasy CBI, was long on talent. While some teams, such as 16-15 Oklahoma, featured so-so records, most finished with at least 18 wins and no more than 13 losses.
Giles’ plan is a grand one indeed, but it is not so far-fetched when you consider that for Giles, a self-professed sports addict since his childhood in Easton, Massachusetts, it is old hat. Born in Huntington, Long Island, and a 1983 graduate of Princeton University, Giles played defensive back on the football team. “Just OK” in football, Giles did better in his studies. But though he majored in economics and loved sports, he had no idea what he wanted to do with himself when college was over. When he graduated, he weighed his twin passions for sports and business.
Rather than follow his father into the human resources field, Giles says he fused his two great loves into a general career plan that had something to do with both and went onto NYU’s Stern School of Business. After graduating, Giles went to work for IMG’s television division in Cleveland, where he met Janet through some college friends. A 1985 graduate of Saint Lawrence University where she studied art history, Janet most recently a taught at Chapin School. She now does volunteer work and stays home with the Giles’ four kids.
Giles’ eight years at IMG, which brought him back to New York in the late 1980s, was a good training ground for his life to come. There was glamour, yes — trips to the West Coast and having a hand in bringing the original “American Gladiators” to TV. But there were the lessons, too. The groundwork for learning how to keep a supposedly well-oiled machine from flying apart at the joints was laid at IMG.
In 1989 Universal Studios and Samuel Goldwyn Entertainment brought a five-year-old contest of brute strength, with roots in Erie, Pennsylvania’s iron industry, to the screen as “American Gladiators.” It being television, the pace moved fast and the schedule was frenetic. Twenty-six episodes — the entire first season — needed to be shot in 13 nonconsecutive days. But after just four days, the gladiators — Nitro, Malibu, Gemini, and the gang — wanted more money. They had been taking on all comers, Giles says and, not even halfway through the taping for Season One, were beaten down by the grind.
“We had nine days to go and the gladiators were on strike,” says Giles. But rather than trying to outmuscle the muscle, and unwilling to just fork over the cash, Giles says he used a little psychology. “I told them we could go down to Gold’s Gym and find more gladiators there,” he says with a chuckle. “We worked it out.”
But not every crisis offered such an easy solution. There was the time the America’s Cup almost wasn’t. Well over 100 years old by the late 1980s, the triannual America’s Cup yacht race had become a staple on the cable sports circuit. In 1988 while the tournament was gearing up with its Defender and Challenger race — a preamble to the Cup itself — there were deep rumblings under the azure San Diego skies. ESPN, which televised the race, and consequently sank a lot of money into the rights to do so, claimed its money had somehow disappeared through the system.
Negotiations quickly broke down and Giles, who had been sent to San Diego for three days to help facilitate what was supposed to be an easy deal, was starting his third week living out of a suitcase packed with half a week’s worth of clothes. On the eve of the Defender and Challenger series, negotiations died. Racers who were preparing to sail the following dawn were as ready as everyone else to call it quits. Giles met with all the concerned parties in the lobby of the Embassy Suites hotel and hammered out a deal that was, up to that point, willing to let itself die.
“That taught me a lesson on not giving up,” say Giles. “Keep pushing, no mater how many no’s you hear.”
Such grounding has given Giles the confidence he needs to pull off something as ambitious as a college basketball tournament built to rival — and, as importantly, to complement — the National Invitational Tournament. To be sure, Giles is not looking to knock the NCAA off its perch. “Everyone knows the number one target for everybody is to make the NCAA tournament,” he says. What he wants is to make a home for those teams that deserve to play in March, but weren’t invited to the NCAA dance.
The timing, if nothing else, could be serendipitous for Gazelle Group. Though founded in 1938, prior to the NCAA tournament, the NIT has lost most of its luster, lurking in the shadows of the larger NCAA show. In U.S. District Court in New York in 2005 the NIT challenged the NCAA’s requirement that teams attend the latter’s tournament if invited. The NIT claimed schools should have a choice — one of Giles’ key arguments for having a third contest — and argued that NCAA requirements made the NIT an also-ran. The NIT had gone from a contest of great prestige to the butt of mocking nicknames — the Not Invited Tournament; Nobody’s Interested Tournament.
The NCAA settled the problem by buying the NIT for $40.5 million and dropping another $16 million to end litigation. It now operates both tournaments. Though the 2006 NIT roster was deep, featuring such teams as Cincinnati, Michigan, and Maryland, many good teams were excluded. Exclusion can, in part, be blamed on the NCAA’s reduction of the number of NIT teams. In 2006 the NIT was a 40-team tournament; in 2007 it was down to 32 teams.
In the midst of such turmoil, and despite the unique pedestal on which the NCAA tournament sits, Giles believes he has the power of competition on his side.
“Competition is a great driving force,” Giles says. “Now colleges will have a choice.”
Giles’ competition, however, is not relegated to the basketball court. It also has shown itself in U.S. District Court. In 2002 Giles supported an antitrust suit, Worldwide Basketball vs. NCAA, that claimed the NCAA’s 2-in-4 policy — a rule stating that college teams could only play in two exempt (and non-NCAA-sanctioned) tournaments every four years — was an illegal restraint of trade. Exempt tournaments, such as the type Giles promotes, are those played outside teams’ regular season schedules and, therefore, do not count toward their records. Giles said at the time that the policy kept smaller schools in particular from playing and promoting their names. He also charged that the NCAA was fostering less competition for itself.
Despite original court support for the suit in 2003, the U.S. District Court of Appeals sided with the NCAA and reversed the lower court’s decision in November, 2004. Judge Julia Gibbons wrote in the decision, “No one has interfered with the promoters’ freedom to compete in the market for Division I men’s college basketball games.”
Translation: No one can stop promoters from mounting tournaments, but the NCAA can still use its 2-in-4 policy.
The I-can’t-stop-you-but-you’re-on-your-own mindset, as it relates to the CBI, is present in more places than the courtroom. After Gazelle announced it would produce the CBI in November, Big East Athletics Conference commissioner Michael Tranghese embraced the same logic. In a press conference before the Associated Press, Tranghese said that while he would not stop any of his schools from participating in the CBI (or any other tournament), he wondered whether schools would embrace a third tournament. Sports journalists who reported on Gazelle’s announcement, by and large ask who cares, and dismiss the CBI as a runner-up to the runner-up NIT.
Greg Shaheen, spokesman for the NCAA/NIT, did not return calls for comment, and Gary Walters, Princeton University’s athletic director and 2007 chair of the NCAA’s Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee, declined to comment on the CBI, saying it would be a conflict of interest to do so.
However, while Walters would not directly comment on the CBI, statements he made after defining the 2007 NCAA matchups could be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement that the market is open. Walters said the final cut for last year’s NCAA tourney was the hardest he had seen in his five years on the Selection Committee. His reasoning was that, given the presence of exempt games and the addition of one extra game in all NCAA schedules, the field of teams finishing with 20 or more wins last year leapt from 78 to 104. He said that while the new numbers added complexity, they also likely added a lot of heartbreak for teams that did not get into either March competition and forced the committee to “shoehorn more teams into the final spots.”
Less ambiguous, and not a little surprising, are the sentiments expressed in a report presented by College Sports Television after Giles announced his intentions. CSTV is owned by CBS, which holds the coveted rights to broadcast the NCAA tournament, yet in a November report, the channel stated that the rise of solid teams coupled with the smaller NIT market “promote the need for another postseason opportunity.”
Bobby Gonzalez, coach of the always-a-threat Seton Hall Pirates, is more openly supportive. A common presence in both the NCAA and NIT contests, Seton Hall made it to the NCAA finals in 1989 and the Sweet 16 in 2000. This year, however, plagued by injuries among key players, the Pirates are not likely to find their way into the NCAA show. They are, however, considered a strong contender for the NIT and CBI.
Gonzalez said last week that he was intrigued by the CBI and curious how it would play out, but delighted to consider the chance to play a round of postseason ball, wherever it is. “Any time you get a chance to play more games, or get into any postseason tournament, I see that as a positive,” he said. Acknowledging that the NCAA tournament is the zenith for college basketball, Gonzalez said the exposure provided by the CBI could help propel smaller market teams into the public eye and, at the very least, get players experience in playoff situations. Such exposure could, thereby, be the first steps on a course to an NCAA invitation.
Part of the plan toward making the CBI a credible and desirable alternative will be wooing schools away from the NIT. Giles, who says he plans to go straight for team No. 66 on the NCAA list, knows some teams will hem, others haw. Some will refuse outright and some will bail, but Giles is banking on enough solid teams, either looking to get a name out there, or which possibly are sick of the tumult involving the NCAA, to join the CBI tournament and give the NIT a run for its money. Giles hopes to offer teams a superior package, which will cover the financial expenses of the teams in the CBI — a projected two-week contest — plus incentives on ticket sales and merchandising.
The money — which he expects to run into seven figures — is all coming from Gazelle. Hope springs, of course, that the CBI will generate TV deals and corporate sponsors, but to get there, Giles says, there are a couple keys.”
“First, do teams select us over the NIT? If they do, then we know we are a better package.” Second, he says, if television executives bite, it automatically will prove the CBI is an asset to corporate sponsors; and if corporate sponsors bite, it the tourney will become more attractive to TV.
Ultimately, of course, Giles needs teams to play in his contest, and for that to happen, teams will have to show an interest.
While the ifs are plentiful, Giles is not the type to worry. At least not outwardly. And what many people might think is the most worrisome factor — the idea of introducing a new tournament in the already populous world of college sports — this is probably the area that least concerns Giles.
“The sports marketplace is plentiful,” he says. It is a perspective honed through experience and bolstered by what he sees as a continuing evolution. People like sports, he says. They hunger to watch them, and if good sports are out there, people will watch. To punctuate his point, Giles thinks of ESPN.
It was a day back at IMG. Given that firm’s resources and reach, Giles says, he made an ambitious, and to him obvious, suggestion that IMG consider developing a cable sports channel.
“I was almost laughed out of the room,” he says. IMG’s reasoning was that ESPN, the emperor of sports networks, had it covered; that there was no room for sports channel start-ups in an already saturated market, and that to go for it would amount to little more than flailing, failing, and losing big.
But consider, Giles says, the presence of not only multiple ESPN channels, launched well after IMG had a good laugh at his expense, but also the proliferation of other sports stations. There are full-time sports networks like Versus, which carries NHL games, and there are part-time channels, such as Fox and NBC, which carry major sports and major events, despite ESPN’s tall shadow.
“You can always look at something and think you have everything from the A, B, and C to the X, Y, and Z,” he says. But the fact is, sports is a product with plenty of room for exposure. The CBI as just another product, he says, will stand or fall on its own merits, not because there’s competition.
Giles also insists that looking at the sports market as a fixed commodity is a mistake. Charting the path of sports, particularly college sports, he says, can show that it is in constant flux and always ready for a new venture — after all, everyone considered the AFL a mere aside to the NFL until the Super Bowl made them inseparable. The game has changed and so have the games. And they always will.
“You can’t turn back the clock,” he says. “2040 won’t be like 1940.”
Giles also believes the appetite for sports is best personified by the thousands of college athletes who play knowing they will never get the Major League contract, or the million-dollar deal to play in the NBA. They play because they love sports and competition, and from that vantage point, it is logical to assume that today’s athletes are tomorrow’s sports consumers.
The Gazelle Group itself is no stranger to the basketball tournament scene, another factor that gives Giles the confidence to believe the CBI will withstand the new-guy-on-the-block scrutiny.
The seminal 1995 Shoot-Out took place just that year and the following year, but it formed the groundwork for Gazelle’s current main basketball event, the College Hoops Classic. Held each November, the Classic now boasts an exhausting 60-game, 20-city, 17-day schedule that concludes in Madison Square Garden. The 2007 tournament ended with Memphis defeating Connecticut.
Giles admits the Classic takes a lot of work, but it pays dividends that, he says, go beyond money. And it has given him a certain degree of standing in the sports marketing world that allows him to do more than dream of seeing deserving teams get a little more court time in March. It also has given him the experience to know how to put together a tournament which, like most, will not reveal its contenders until late in the game.
“College basketball moves very methodically,” Giles says. But as the divisions and conferences take shape through January and February, he says, it becomes less and less a surprise who will make it. By the time the NCAA is ready to make its rankings public, the top 60 or so teams are no real surprise. This gives Gazelle enough of a jump to start wooing the teams that could qualify or just miss.
“We hope to start work on team recruitment in February,” he says. Like the NIT, the CBI will look to recruit those teams spurned by the NCAA. Once the final NCAA schedule is set, he says, it should be a two-day turnaround to set the schedule for the CBI.
The CBI will part from the NCAA and NIT format in at least two ways. First, all games will be a home game for one of the teams, unlike the NCAA, which features home games and then a neutral-site finale. And, unlike the NCAA/NIT’s all-or-nothing one-game championship, the CBI will feature a two-out-of-three championship that will see at least one game played in each of the final contenders’ home arenas.
The major reasons for the format. Securing the arena of a team that already is in the tournament just creates fewer problems, but it also taps into something Giles says is the main reason sports are under such a microscope. “There is a lot of emotion,” he says. People simply go nuts for their teams and put a lot of energy into cheering them on. And if they can do it from home, so much the better.
Giles is certainly familiar with the ties that bind us to sports. Not just a sports nut himself, Giles says he and his wife have three very sports-minded children involved in everything from soccer to hockey, and a fourth who, at age 7, is just busting at the chance to get on a field, a court, a rink, whatever, like his brother and sisters do.
As for how the CBI will pan out, Giles says Gazelle will do its best to make it work. But then, Giles never was the type to rely on a crystal ball.
“I didn’t start this business with this big book of five-year projections,” he says. “I tend to be a gut feeling decision maker.”
Keep in mind that so far Giles’ method of leaping into the fray has worked for him. What started out in that bare-walled office in 1994 has become a genuine factor in sports marketing. Gazelle Group today offers a broad menu of services and products, from representation and design services (the largest being a contract with Georgetown University to produce the school’s posters and media guides) to consulting and producing events. Beyond the CBI and the College Hoops Classic, Gazelle also produces the O’Reilly CBE, the BCA Classic, the Blue Ribbon Challenge, and the StubHub Legends Classic.
Giles’ success also doesn’t come from paying attention to old chestnuts like, “The first step is always the hardest.” It’s never been the hardest for him, not in designing the CBI and not in jumping from the comfort of IMG to the murky waters of entrepreneurship. “I started the day after Labor Day, 1994,” he says. “It wasn’t really that scary. Lots of people strike out on their own, that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of strength.”
The strength, he says, comes about a year later, when business has yet to be even close to what you dreamed up. “That’s when you say, ‘Why did I do this?’” he says. “That’s when 99 percent turn back.”
The Gazelle Group, 475 Wall Street, Princeton, 08540; 609-921-0133; fax, 609-921-2332. Richard Giles, president. Home page: www.gazellegroup.com.