The Butler Almost Did It

Today, a nation mourns. Surely there are even Duke faithful who realize that if Butler had won the Big Dance it would have brought only unadulterated good to the business of college basketball. Because that’s what it is, let’s not fool ourselves; college basketball is a multimillion dollar industry, for schools, for TV, for the NBA. Take the four #1 teams going into the tournament and their respective men’s basketball budgets: Kansas ($8M), Syracuse ($8M), Kentucky ($8M), and Duke ($13.8M). That’s a combined nearly $40 million on coaches, recruiting, facilities, training, and those fly (sometimes Gothic-inlayed) uniforms. And for many of the big powerhouse schools that money is well spent, for example Syracuse’s men’s basketball program brought the university close to $17 million in revenue in 08-09, $9 million in profits. In this economy these teams are veritable Fortune 500 companies (minus the salaries).

Which brings us to the little guys. Each and every year there’s a David beating Goliath. Cinderella’s of year’s past include Gonzaga, Davidson, George Mason, Villanova, names that for sports fans conjure nostalgia for world beaters. This tournament had a few, Northern Iowa ($1.5M) dropped #1 Kansas in the second round. Cornell ($800,000) made it through two rounds, as did upstart St. Mary’s ($1.6M). The intrigue of the tourney comes because on any given night a team can be beat, even a well-funded one. Yet Butler was, almost, different. Butler is a team some said wasn’t a Cinderella at all given its excellent performance all season. But with a budget of $1.7 million we’re giving them the slipper. And if they could have pulled it off they would have defied, and redefined, the same-old-story: Beat the favorite, maybe even a couple times, but still, in the end, go home conquered. In this case it was a loss on that could have turned on a last-second shot. A shot that CBS replayed over and over again, each time the ball clinking off the rim. (On Twitter William Leitch compares the replay to the fifth bullet scene in Oliver Stone’s JFK: “That CBS montage of the last second miss is college basketball’s ‘back, and to the left … back, and to the left.’ Gruesome.”)

$1.7 million. That’s less than half of what Duke’s coach makes. (Oh, and said Coach Krzyzewski was offered $15 million a year yesterday to coach the beleaguered New Jersey Nets by owner, and Russian oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov. Coach K has apparently turned him down.) Last night CBS made the point, more than once, that these were two small schools, Butler a school of 4,000, Duke of 6,300. But Duke outsized its student body long ago. It’s not the size of the school that matters, but the size of its coffers. And painting these two blue-uniformed teams as similar is to do the economic realities of college basketball an injustice. The Hoopty writes it plain: Of the 347 Division I men’s college basketball schools, Duke’s basketball budget ranks #1 in the nation and Butler’s ranks #142 in the nation.

For a scrappy upstart to beat an elite, institutionalized giant is the allure of the tournament. Had Butler made it all the way to the trophy, that would have been kind of magical in its improbability. Instead Duke is national champion, again. So, is there more parity? Sort of. But the message is clear and predictable: In the end money wins out. And what’s a business, stays a business. Would it have really been so different if that shot had fallen? Would the rising tide have lifted all schools? Maybe, somewhat, but that’s just money talking. We’d still be left with the (mostly male, unless you’re talking UConn) student-athlete as commodity. But it would have felt like less of a fix. It would have felt like, even with all the money and cynicism and high-stakes, anything’s possible. We mourn because, as a nation we missed our shot, our shot at that at least.