Heading into its seventh year, The Basketball Tournament was poised to take another step forward in 2020.
Founded in 2014, the single-elimination tournament has grown in stature thanks to unique rules, the winner-take-all format where teams have played for $2 million, and talented players looking to impress scouts on a national broadcast network thanks to TBT’s deal with ESPN.
But as the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the entire sports industry, the TBT was forced to pivot. Moving away from a multi-city event, the entire 2020 TBT will be held at Nationwide Arena over 11 days starting July 4.
As a result of costs related to the health and safety of the more than 300 players, the winning prize had to be decreased to $1 million for this year.
But at the same time, TBT reached a new level of sponsor support, a combination of its organic growth alongside the fact that it will have the first live basketball games on television in the U.S. since mid-March.
“Heading into year seven puts us in a rare class of sports property,” said TBT founder and CEO Jon Mugar. “We have been lucky enough to help introduce several innovations to the sports world, such as our post-game bracket celebration, which was adopted by the NCAA, and the Elam Ending, which debuted in the NBA All Star Game this year. As a result, we carry much greater legitimacy with bigger brands.”
In 2019, TBT had three partners – Puma, Zelle, and the Air Force Reserve – all of which will return in 2020. In addition, it now has seven new partners: E&J Brandy, FanDuel, American Eagle, Addaday, Vault Health, Ready, and OhioHealth.
“This has been a unique year for TBT in every way imaginable,” Mugar said. “In general, we have been getting positive support from so many in the sports world, including those who are now first time partners. It has given us a tremendous boost.”
Puma became a sponsor of the TBT in 2018, and recently signed a three-year extension with the property that begins this year. Evan Olesh, head of basketball and sports marketing at Puma, said while the company already saw value in partnering with the TBT due to both properties’ interest in being “a disruptor in the industry,” that added spotlight this year makes it even more attractive.
“The TBT team has done an incredible job putting player and staff safety as the number one priority heading into the event, and we very much support safety as the number one priority,” Olesh said. “Of course, we love that TBT will be one of the few live sports happening on national TV in early July. It gives us an incredible platform to reach our target audience, who is craving live hoops. We did our best to create an exciting and fun presence on court, which will be really fun and unique, given that there are no fans in the arena.”
Specifically, Puma designs all the team uniforms and TBT gear, but will also have ‘creative ownership’ of the court that will sit in Nationwide Arena.
The ‘bubble’ concept also was intriguing to new sponsor Addaday, a manufacturer of recovery equipment like massage guns and foam rollers.
“The bubble concept means we have a captive audience of athletes, PTs and trainers who can reap the full benefits from Addaday’s broad line of recovery products without the usual distractions from the outside world,” said Hugh Williams, president of Addaday.
Williams also noted the fact that TBT is the rare domestic sports event right now makes it a “great platform to generate awareness among a broad audience of sports-starved fans.”
There is also a practical element for the players as well: “The tournament format means players need to bounce back from each grueling game quickly so it’s a great way to showcase how Addaday’s products can help them recover post-game as well as prime their bodies pre-game,” he said.
That practical reason is what led Vault Health to partner with the TBT, with the company helping provide and administer COVID-19 saliva tests to all players and staff members.
“This is something that all sports teams, leagues, and chief medical officers are talking about,” said Claire Cochrane, COO of Vault Health. “While COVID-19 testing is not our core business, it’s great to be part of this and help professional sports league get back to playing.”
The unique situation has led to some opportunities for TBT, Mugar noted, ranging from the unique arena situation to the enhanced broadcast visibility on ESPN.
“I’m very excited by our in-arena setup, which we worked closely with Puma on. And Zelle is helping us with our championship payout once again, so our winning team gets paid with the push of a button following the championship,” he said. “Aside from that, we plan on spending time in our broadcast checking in with folks watching at home and listening to the action on the floor, both of which are elements brands have found intriguing.”