State puts $2M towards Shootout’s future after ‘09 low

The State of Alaska’s fiscal budget in 2012 is set to include $2 million dollars intended to revitalize the suffering Great Alaska Shootout. The money will be allotted over a three-year period, starting in 2012. Expenditures will include raising game guarantees for participating teams, and providing travel subsidies for rural Alaskans.

The Shootout, which is the nation’s longest running, regular-season college basketball tournament, has experienced trouble over the last few years in recruiting high profile teams to compete, and therefore have been losing spectators as well. The tournament reached an all-time low in 2009 when its usual eight-team line-up was reduced to six. The low of 2009 followed ESPN’s decision to drop the tournament as part of their coverage. Since then, gone are the big-name, Division I teams that bring attention to the championship.

“We’ve had some decline because the perceived fields aren’t as strong as they were in the past,” said UAA Athletic Director Steve Cobb. An increase in both tournaments and game guarantees in recent years has have affected UAA’s ability to bring more recognizable teams to the Shootout.

UAA is paying between $55,000 to $110,000 per team in game guarantees for this year’s tournament. But with the money from the state, Cobb is hoping to increase that amount.

“People want to see Duke, people want to see Kentucky, UCLA,” Cobb explained. “We think with these extra dollars, we’re going to be able to have a couple of those every year, sort of as anchor tenants to the tournament.”

The second half of the money will be spent bringing more rural Alaskans to the event through a partnership with Alaska Airlines. The goal is to provide the people in certain rural towns who purchase Shootout tickets first, a plane ticket voucher to Anchorage. Included in talks with Alaska Airlines is a future plan to include discounted rental cars and hotel rooms along with the package.

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“Our goal is to get 1,000 to 1,200 new fans that take that as an opportunity made to come to Anchorage to do holiday shopping, to go the Shootout,” Cobb said.

UAA’s struggles in keeping the tournament going and the high economic importance of the Shootout prompted Alaska congressmen to address the issue.

“People were aware that we needed some help, and people wanted to keep it for a number of reasons, mostly the economic impact on the State,” Cobb said. “I was asked if we got some extra money from Juneau, would it help us? And I said yes. That’s all I really had to do.”

A key proponent of the legislation was Haines Representative Bill Thomas. Thomas surveyed members of the State Legislature a few years ago and found that the Shootout was a high priority, due to its economic significance. The Shootout also held a personal interest for Thomas, who used to play basketball himself.

“Alaska is a basketball state and I used to watch the Shootout. I thought the quality of the teams was going down, so this was to bring the teams back and to bring people back to the state,” Thomas said.

In addition to the $2 million, any Alaskan company that contributes to the Shootout will receive a tax credit with the state.

“What we’re trying to do is build a fund deficit that will continue to fund the Shootout,” Thomas explained. “All they have to do is convince someone to give them the money.”

Originally proposed for this Partnership was a $2.5 million dollar allocation, later reduced to $2 million by Governor Parnell during his effort to reduce state spending by $300 million. In his veto spree, Parnell overlooked other projects, such as improvements for the downtown library, in favor of the Shootout Partnership.

Such a decision surprised Senator Joe Thomas of Fairbanks, who commented to the Fairbanks News-Miner, “It seems a little ridiculous to me.”

Yet despite opposition, the greatest concern regarding the Shootout is the economic effect on the state. At its peak, the shootout was bringing UAA a profit of around $500,000. In addition to this sum, the tournament brought people from around the state and the nation to Anchorage, and spotlighted UAA’s basketball program.

“The shootout gives us a national presence,” Cobb said. “It gives us an extraordinary recruiting tool. It’s extraordinarily attractive to our sponsors. If we made zero on the shootout it would still be a huge asset. But we do better than that.”

As a sports fan in his early 20s, Cobb has been well aware of the Shootout since it began 33 years ago. He now serves as the de facto tournament director. He oversees the men and women’s tournaments, all social events, and all budgeting aspects. And while he works on this year’s shootout, he always has the next two years in mind.

“At any given time I’m working on 3 Shootouts. I have teams signed up for 3 different years, and I’m negotiating with them at different prices,” Cobb said.

While Cobb spearheads the shootout, he stressed that the shootout is only possible with several groups.

“It’s really a community effort. We get a lot of help.”

This includes the 130 to 140 volunteers, everyone in the sports office, and sponsors, who donate a total of over $175,000.

The community spirit behind the tournament and the economic impact is what prompted the legislators and Thomas to step in. And with the State’s help, Cobb expects to see a brighter future for the tournament.

“We think if we do this new program, it’s going to dramatically improve the Shootout and our ability to hold the tournament,” Cobb said.