Sampson Upset Made Hawaii Basketball Tournament ESPN Slam Dunk

College basketball and sports television mark a colorful milestone today: 30 years of coaches wearing Hawaiian shirts at a tournament in a tiny gym that helped turn ESPN into a 24-hour ratings and revenue machine.

The Maui Invitational, played annually in the 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center, was born two years after one of the most stunning upsets in sports history. In 1982, the top-ranked and unbeaten University of Virginia, led by 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, lost 77-72 in Honolulu to Chaminade University, a Catholic school with an enrollment of about 800 that played at one of college basketball’s lowest levels.

There was no TV coverage of the game, played five time zones west of New York, and footage is limited to low-quality video taken by the Chaminade athletic department. Three decades later, every game of that contest’s offspring, the Maui Invitational that runs through Nov. 27, will be shown live by Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN, which Forbes lists as the world’s second-most valuable sports brand behind Nike Inc.

“That in a lot of ways helped ESPN grow,” Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president, said in a telephone interview from Bristol, Connecticut. “Way back when, you had your prescribed times when you could see live sporting events. With Maui having different game times, whether it was late at night, early during the day or in the afternoon, certainly helped ESPN on the road to legitimizing 24-7 content.”

Disney Dollars

ESPN, which started in 1979 on a handful of cable outlets, now heads a media division that generated $20.4 billion last year, accounting for more than 45 percent of the Disney company’s revenue. It’s so essential to cable TV systems that it demands -- and gets -- $5.54 a month for each household it reaches in the U.S., compared with 13 cents for the Weather Channel, according to media research firm SNL Kagan.

ESPN declined to say what it pays for broadcast rights to the tournament, which the administration at Chaminade wanted to be held on neighboring islands instead of Oahu. Initially switched to the big island of Hawaii, it moved to the War Memorial Gym in Wailuku on Maui and then to Lahaina after the Civic Center was built, because visiting teams liked the proximity of hotels, beaches and shopping.

The Maui Invitational has boosted the Hawaiian economy by more than $164 million in the past 30 years, according to the Maui Visitors Bureau. Its success also helped create other early season tournaments around the country, including the biggest media market, New York City.

‘Attractive Programming’

“ESPN set up these events to generate attractive programming for their channel,” said Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president and founder of Pilson Communications, which advises teams and leagues. “They controlled the match-ups to get top teams and good rivalry games. It was very smart.”

Eight schools traveled to Maui this year, with Syracuse, Arkansas, California, Minnesota, Baylor, Dayton and Gonzaga joining Honolulu-based Chaminade, a perennial entrant.

Steve Skinner, chief executive officer of the event’s organizer, Northbrook, Illinois-based KemperSports, said while the invitational was founded around the location, the focus is having marquee teams and challenging competition, treating contestants as if they were in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

“It also adds educational and cultural elements as well, because most of these players have never been to Hawaii and many of them will never go back,” Skinner said in a telephone interview.

Team Travel

KemperSports, which manages nationally rated golf resorts such as Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Streamsong in Florida, has run the Maui Invitational since 1990 through its sister company KemperLesnik. Skinner said organizers pay for team travel and lodging in Maui, declining to disclose the tournament’s budget.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is returning to Maui for the first time in 15 years. Though he’s worn them in past tournaments like most participating coaches, he said he’ll skip the flowered shirt for a standard school polo on the bench as his ninth-ranked Orange highlight this year’s field.

Boeheim’s teams have a 6-0 record in Maui, winning tournament titles in 1990 and 1998. Playing basketball and sightseeing more than 4,500 miles from its home at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York, offers a chance for team bonding on and off the court, he said.

“You’re there a couple extra days, you have dinners, more time together than normal trips,” Boeheim said in a telephone interview. “So it’s more than just concentration on basketball for those four or five days.”

Past Champions

Duke is a five-time Maui Invitational champion, while North Carolina, Connecticut and Michigan have also won multiple titles. Illinois defeated Butler in the final last year, after Chaminade upset Texas and the Illini won their three games by an average of 23.3 points. Last year’s tournament had a 0.3 rating and 404,000 viewers for each game, according to ESPN figures.

Schools are limited to one appearance in a four-year span and organizers set a limit of one team from each conference.

Syracuse this year is representing the Atlantic Coast Conference and has a first-round game against Minnesota, a Big Ten team coached by Richard Pitino, the son of Rick Pitino, the Hall of Fame coach from the University of Louisville.

Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference faces California of the Pac-12, Dayton of the Atlantic 10 plays Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference and Chaminade of the Division II Pac West takes on Baylor of the Big 12.

More than 4,000 out-of-state visitors -- players, officials, team personnel, media, sponsors, production crews and fans -- will travel to Hawaii for the tournament, with many staying through the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Standout Event

Maui is the site of the PGA Tour’s Hyundai golf tournament and events in the Xterra Adventures extreme-sports series. The basketball tournament’s longevity makes it special, “an Energizer bunny that keeps on going,” said Terryl Vencl of the Maui Visitors Bureau.

The games are played in a venue more akin to a high school gym than the 49,262-seat Carrier Dome. The arena, with tight confines and loud crowds, is one of the tournament’s charms, organizers said.

“It is kind of a throwback,” Skinner said. “So much of college sports have become huge arenas and football stadiums. This really is kind of the way the game started in small gyms. Roll the ball in the middle of the court and go after it.”

The vibe for the Maui Invitational might be as different as the venue, Williamson said, and it’s worked for ESPN.

“Most coaches are micromanagers and control freaks, and especially early in the season, you want things to go right,” he said. “But you get out there and it’s just a different vibe because it is Hawaii. People are just a little more relaxed.”

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