It’s safe to say that most sports fans, at one time or another, harbored a secret desire to step on the court or field one day professionally. Well, for The Basketball Tournament’s Founder and CEO Jon Mugar, that dream reached an entirely different level.
In fact, he wasn’t satisfied with the idea of just taking part in a tournament or league; he aspired to start his own, enabling superfans to create an entire organization from the ground up.
First held in Boston in 2014, The Basketball Tournament is a single-elimination tournament played every summer that’s open for anybody to enter. To participate, teams are selected primarily via fan popularity, with the others being determined by four “at large” bids handed out (one for each region) and four “buy-in” opportunities. Currently featuring 72 teams competing for a winner-take-all $2 million prize, TBT has grown by leaps and bounds since it was originally conceived by Mugar and one of his childhood buddies.
“It’s funny,” Mugar said. “It all started as a text message thread with Dan Friel, my good friend, as a crazy question: ‘What do you think would happen if there was basketball tournament with a pot of $50 million and anybody was invited to play for it?’”
The idea behind TBT was originally just one of those sports-fan hypotheticals, but he became obsessed with the notion. “Over four or five months while working as a comedy producer and writer, I took this crazy, huge idea and turned it into something actionable and real. At first, it was an obsession, and then there was an absolute persistence to making it work, and after spending two years fleshing out the idea, we were finally able to try it out in some form, which is what that 2014 tournament was.”
Mugar knew something like the TBT — a league knocking down the barrier between pro sports and fandom — was a good idea, but he had to prove that it was possible and would resonate. To get other people behind him supporting the tournament required demonstrating proof of concept, which turned out to be well received. Still, at the time, he and his team were challenged by others to think of all the practicalities.
“‘How will the officiating respond with such high stakes?’ ‘Are you going to be able to secure the venues, put on a quality sports event, create rules and organization?’ We had to put on a ‘pilot version’ to prove we could do it,” he said.
With drive, determination, and an unyielding moxy, Mugar launched The Basketball Tournament’s first installment four years ago with results he found absolutely astounding. The tournament was originally dreamt up as a way for fans like him — a Division III basketball player during his time at Tufts University — and other hobbyists looking to get back into the game on a competitive level.
“What really ended up happening was remarkable: high-quality basketball at a truly competitive level. The tournament attracted immensely talented players sort of ‘on the cusp’ of playing in the NBA,” Mugar said.
The teams ended up featuring athletes from an incredible player pool that has only continued to grow over the years. That seems almost like an understatement, considering TBT has ended up attracting over 60 players with actual NBA experience, including current and former NBA players such as Carmelo Anthony, Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, and Greg Oden, to name a few. In addition, many participants in the tournament have gone on to sign with teams actually in the professional basketball league.
“Just last year, 16 of our players that competed in 2017 TBT went on to sign with NBA teams during the 2017-18 season,” Mugar said.
More importantly, as the organization’s website says, The Basketball Tournament has evolved into the “premier basketball event of the summer, with national exposure on ESPN, a major sponsorship deal with Puma, significant social media buzz, and a winner-take-all $2 million game.”
Tracing the history of TBT, and seeing all the other startup sports leagues that have tried and failed, its truly remarkable how popular and enduring Mugar’s tournament has become. The tournament originally started in Boston with games attended mostly by onlookers curious to see how a sports tournament with a $500,000 prize would go. There were no sponsors, no financial support, and only the championship game was briefly streamed online.
“Now we have 100 hours on the internet streaming, 44 hours on ESPN and ESPN2 featuring 22 games; a $2 million prize pool; and a multi-year partnership attached,” Mugar stated. “TBT isn’t about rewarding people that have made it to the highest level on their way down; we’re opening basketball up to players on their way up, aspiring for a shot to play. We don’t care about a basketball resume. In TBT, it’s all about providing an opportunity for people that believe in themselves and want to prove any doubters wrong.”
Attracting competitors with that gritty, ambitious attitude leads to truly passionate, exciting play on the court.
“In the end, we’re sports fans,” he said. “I believe fans should have direction of sports. The ultimate opportunity is to jump into the game or in our tournament as a GM, team owner, or fan with equity ownership. Fans also have power over the selection process, so the teams that make it into the tournament have to brand themselves in a way that’s recognizable and appealing to basketball fans out there.”
The Basketball Tournament is willing to try new things, with an emphasis on initiatives that continue to disrupt the sports entertainment landscape. For instance, one activation that’s taken hold is the league’s “Bracket Celebration,” in which the winning team gets to physically advance its name on a giant bracket as it moves to the next round. The implementation was so popular, that after a huge push on social media that eventually worked its way up to the ears of sports analysts, the NCAA adopted the idea during its 2018 March Madness Tournament.
Most recently, as a sign of further validation, The Basketball Tournament signed a multi-year deal with Puma that will make the company the league’s exclusive footwear and apparel partner. In addition to the things that typically go along with partnerships like these, such as promotional rights to the games and a presence both on-site and during broadcasts, Puma and TBT have also rolled out something truly unique — this year, anybody playing in the tournament that goes on to sign with the NBA will be offered an official endorsement from Puma.
Puma’s Global Director of Brand and Marketing Adam Petrick said, “we want to shake things up within the sport, and this tournament does that. TBT is a unique concept and perfect tournament for us to get involved in as we kick off our re-entry into basketball.”
For The Basketball Tournament, “partnering with an iconic brand like Puma is a game changer. Not only do they have a massive footprint, but they value creativity, risk-taking, and the idea of challenging the status quo,” Mugar said. “They chose two properties to launch back into basketball with: one the NBA, the other is TBT. That’s not lost on me for a second. They’ve recognized what we’re doing is really unique, democratizing sports, and disrupting the game.”
The tournament’s championship will air tonight, Aug. 3, at 9 pm ET on ESPN