Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 09/11/20

It’s no surprise that college basketball is a niche sport.

There are generally three main sectors of college basketball viewership: the diehard fans, the NBA prospect watchers and the millions who tune in every March only until their bracket busts.

College basketball doesn’t feature superstars like the NBA. And it certainly doesn’t have the collective interest to directly compete with fall NFL viewership either.

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How the 2020-21 college basketball season unfolds — assuming it happens — will tell us a lot about the sport’s current fan interest. With little or no fans expected to be in seats this winter, TV viewership has never been more important.

Recent scheduling developments could yield positive results. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, NCAA Sr. VP Dan Gavitt and the NCAA are targeting a delayed start to the ’20-21 season, possibly on the eve of Thanksgiving on Nov. 25.

But instead of ESPN ushering in the season with Duke blowing out a low-major, this year’s season-opening schedule might finally shine.

It’s about time.

Scheduling changes

Several reports indicate that multi-team events (MTEs) are being moved to the season’s probable start date of Nov. 25. In recent years, fans would have to wait a couple weeks for these tournaments. As such, college basketball’s opening weeks are generally filled with more duds than exciting matchups. That’s not a great way to generate excitement for the new season.

The NFL, meanwhile, features the defending Super Bowl champion in its opening game every season. The NBA heavily advertises its opening week with several championship contenders matching up. Even Major League Baseball has the benefit of every No. 1 starter taking the mound on Opening Day.

So why does college basketball — which already struggles with casual, niche interest — have to lag behind?

There is no better way to start a season than with the Maui Invitational, Battle 4 Atlantis and many other MTEs headlining the opening week. As of this writing, the Cancun Challenge and Gulf Coast Showcase are reportedly considering moving to the Nov. 25 start date while other events like the Maui Invitational, Myrtle Beach Invitational, Charleston Classic, 2K Empire Classic and Paradise Jam would be forced to reschedule if the start date is approved.

Potential opening day

Imagine if college basketball opened the season with an entire slate of MTE matchups. Based on just the tournaments listed above, opening day could feature the following teams:

  • Maui Invitational: UNLV, Texas, Stanford, Providence, North Carolina, Indiana, Davidson, Alabama (bracket TBD)
  • Cancun Challenge: Clemson vs. Mississippi State, Illinois State vs. Purdue
  • Myrtle Beach Invitational: Charlotte, Dayton, Loyola Chicago, Missouri, Nebraska, Penn, Pittsburgh, Utah State (bracket TBD)
  • Charleston Classic: Charleston, Florida State, Houston, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Seton Hall, Tennessee, VCU (bracket TBD)
  • 2K Empire Classic: Georgetown vs. Texas, Duke vs. California

Not a bad slate, right? And this doesn’t even include teams not participating in one of the early MTEs. It would almost feel like the March Madness opening round with upwards of 10 straight hours of live college basketball.

The 2020-21 season is a rare opportunity for college basketball. If it is able to safely get underway, college hoops will have no immediate competition from the delayed 2020-21 NBA season, which is scheduled to start in December. Once MLB wraps up in late October, live sports will be largely dominated by the NFL — notably only three times a week — and college basketball.

With everyone stuck at home and the weather quickly turning, the opening week has never meant more for college hoops. Maybe it could be a sign of things to come.

Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.

Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.