BY BEN SIECK | SPORTS EDITOR
Brad Stevens bolted to the National Basketball Association. Junior forward Roosevelt Jones suffered a season-ending injury before playing a regular-season game. Blue II died, and the Butler men’s basketball team is barreling toward its first losing season in nearly a decade.
For fans used to a certain level of success, this isn’t how they envisioned Butler’s first year of basketball in a new conference.
But no matter how bad it gets on the court as the season comes to a close, the futures of the team and university are bright thanks to its inclusion in the Big East Conference.
A first-class basketball program starts with talented players and coaches. To attract that talent, Butler needs the exposure the Big East provides.
“The name of the Big East is one of the most respected brands in college athletics,” said Mike Freeman, Butler associate athletic director.
Becoming a part of that brand is the easiest way for Butler to remain relevant in a tumultuous season.
“The biggest games we play in terms of national appeal, interest and demand for tickets are going to be those conference games,” Freeman said.
In spite of the Bulldogs’ struggles, home attendance figures are nearly identical to last season’s numbers.
A history of success, and the national attention to match, is the fastest way to a top recruit’s heart. With the Big East, Butler has the publicity it needs to compete with the Indianas and Dukes of college basketball.
The Big East is already paying dividends on the recruiting trail. Butler’s incoming class features two high-profile players. Kelan Martin nearly made the McDonald’s All-American game, and Tyler Wideman is graded as a top-10 in-state prospect.
Butler won’t dominate the Big East like it did the Horizon League, but it’ll have access to talent capable of regularly making waves in March.
The Big East’s television deal with Fox puts an estimated $4.2 million in Butler’s pocket every season. On top of that, it makes Sports Information Director Jim McGrath’s job much easier.
“Fox has handed us our exposure,” McGrath said. “I have, in the past, tried to contact national networks to maybe get a piece on here or there. Now, we’re regularly on Fox. The avenue to get our message out is definitely easier.”
Butler has gone from playing the majority of its games on local TV, to regularly being broadcast to 90 million homes. Top recruits will see Butler on television, and so will fans throughout the country. Butler’s profile is instantly raised.
With more money at its disposal, Butler can provide better facilities and amenities to players and fans alike. Through this, Butler can rival the experience offered by the standard-bearers of college basketball.
The successful Hinkle Campaign, which raised $17.1 million for Hinkle Fieldhouse renovation, is just the beginning. Not only has the Big East given Butler financial gains, it has fostered a spirited game day environment in a down season.
I was on hand to watch Butler take on nationally-ranked Creighton at home last month. Butler was 12-12 overall at the time, with no realistic possibility of a meaningful postseason. However, the success of Butler’s Big East foe filled Hinkle close to capacity.
The atmosphere was electric.
Even as Creighton built an early lead, fans were still invested in the game. Playing against a team like Creighton gave meaning to an otherwise meaningless game.
As the Bulldogs hung tough, the crowd cheered. It was as if I’d been transported back a couple of years to when Butler was a Top 25 team, and fans dreamed—realistically—of the Final Four.
Even though the Bulldogs lost, the power of the Big East was on full display that night. For two hours, Butler mattered once again. Amidst a lost season, this is the power a conference has—a power the Horizon League and the Atlantic 10 Conference cannot match.