The Decline of the Great Alaska Shootout
Why Anchorage’s famous college basketball tournament is slipping away.
by Rigo Gonzalez | @_Enigmatic1
The bleachers were packed with die-hard college basketball fans. Students and alumni traveled the hundreds—or even thousands—of miles to cheer on their school. ESPN cameras were everywhere. People all across the nation would tune in to watch, eager to get an early-season view of some of college basketball’s best teams.
It’s an early season college basketball tournament that’s not held in the continental United States. Previous tournament MVPs include Dwyane Wade (2001), Drew Gooden (1999) and Ray Allen (1995). Each of the last 45 NCAA champions have participated in this tournament at some point in their history.
But it’s not the Maui Invitational. You won’t find coaches rocking Hawaiian shirts and leis while prowling the sidelines here. Not while it’s currently four degrees as I type this, in the city where it’s been held annually since 1978.
The Great Alaska Shootout, which is held around Thanksgiving every year in Anchorage, Alaska, has an impressive history. All the heavyweights have played up here at one point or another, from Duke to Kentucky to Kansas to North Carolina.
This year’s field consists of UC-Irvine, Central Michigan, Dartmouth, Murray State, New Mexico State, San Francisco, Southern Mississippi and the host school, Division II University of Alaska-Anchorage.
So the question must be asked: Why is the Shootout no longer attracting the power conference schools it once did?
Like much else in college basketball, it’s all about money. For decades, the rule was that once every four years, a team could participate in a tournament held on a neutral site and it would only count as one game towards its schedule. This was known as an “exempt event.” The rule was changed in 2006 that allowed teams to participate in more exempt events, and from the perspective of the Great Alaska Shootout, all hell broke loose after that.
ESPN subsequently decided not to renew their contract with the Great Alaska Shootout and instead launched their own tournaments, such as the Old Spice Classic. With the Shootout not being able to offer nearly as much money as the ESPN tournaments, the bigger schools flocked to those tournaments instead, leaving the Shootout to be forced to settle for some lesser known teams. And every year it’s getting worse. The day might very well come when there will be no Shootout at all.
Some might not see the big deal in all this, but for residents of Anchorage, it’s huge. Besides the obvious in terms of the money the tournament generates locally, generations of Anchorage residents who were once able to enjoy solid, top-notch college basketball in person must now come to grips with the fact that they likely won’t see a Kentucky, Kansas or Duke play at Sullivan Arena ever again.
I myself never really thought much of the tournament other than it being a great opportunity to watch some solid match-ups on TV. I grew up in Illinois, and Alaska crossed my mind about as often as Siberia or Djibouti did. That is, until I was stationed overseas and met my wife in 2004. She grew up in Anchorage, and in ’09 when she discussed the idea of moving up there, I was intrigued.
Naturally, after images of polar bears, Eskimos, igloos and the usual things people who have never been to Anchorage assume about it, my mind went to basketball and thoughts of checking out the Shootout in person.
Of course, like many college basketball fans that just want to see a great game and don’t really pay nearly as much attention to the name of the tournament the teams are playing in as they are the teams themselves, I had no idea the Shootout had declined so much in recent years. So imagine my disappointment when the field was announced that year and I learned that Alaska-Anchorage, Houston, Nicholls State, Oklahoma, San Diego and Washington State would be playing that year. I tried to get more hyped about it by pointing out to myself that a Big 12 and a Pac-10 team were in the fold. But I just couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the lack of truly marquee names. A Blake Griffin-led Oklahoma squad would have eased all my doubts, but he had moved on to the NBA. I know, a truly die-hard fan wouldn’t care and would go anyways. But, damn, I was really hoping to catch some future NBA players, someone I could tell my grandkids I had watched in person one day, you know? I elected not to go.
In the days preceding the tournament, my boss, knowing I’m a huge basketball fan, asked if I was attending. I told her I wasn’t, and I was surprised to learn that not only was she attending, but she had been to every single tournament since it began in 1978. Her boyfriend at the time convinced her to go to the first one, and as he became her husband and the two had a family, they continued to attend every year. This 50-something-year-old woman who has never lived anywhere but Anchorage, Alaska has seen the likes of James Worthy, Danny Manning, Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Dwyane Wade and many others without ever having to leave her hometown.
Her husband passed away several years ago, and she’s noticed the decline in big-name schools and players that make the trip to the tournament, so I asked her why she continued to attend each year. She does it to honor her husband’s memory and because she enjoys going with the one child she still has living with her, but mostly she does it because it’s tradition. Because like many other citizens of Anchorage, the Great Alaska Shootout is ingrained in her as being a part of the Thanksgiving holiday as much as turkey and stuffing are.
(By the way, a somewhat unknown Klay Thompson led his Washington State squad to the tournament championship that year, exploding for 43 points in the championship game. I subsequently kicked myself for not going.)
Oddly enough, the Great Alaska Shootout was in the news again back in September, two months before the tournament. But it wasn’t because of basketball and it wasn’t even due to this year’s tournament. It was all about the alleged Glen Rice and Sarah Palin tryst from back in 1987 when Palin was covering and Rice was playing in the Shootout. Sadly, it was the most coverage the Shootout had received since 2005.
Nowadays, the bleachers are still packed, mostly with locals who have taken in the tournament for decades. The games are covered only locally. The ESPN banners are gone, replaced by Carrs/Safeway banners, which now sponsors the event. Only a few people, mostly fans of the schools participating and the most diehard of college basketball fans, will catch the box scores in their newspaper the days following the tournament. The people here will continue to go until, inevitably, the Great Alaska Shootout no longer exists.
For a city regarded as irrelevant by the rest of the nation, it was nice to be recognized in the world of college basketball. Soon, even that will disappear.