It’s tournament time, and the ball’s in his hands
Twenty-eight years ago, Greg Shaheen discovered his vocation: to run the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. First, though, he had to finish elementary school. On his way to his dream job, he earned a degree in business from Indiana University in 1990. Ten years later, he joined the NCAA and oversaw the development and relocation of its headquarters to Indianapolis after first directing the local organizing committee when that city hosted the Final Four.
In addition to supervising the operation of the Division I men’s basketball tournament, Shaheen oversees the broadcast and corporate relationships that tie in to the 88 NCAA championships. As he was preparing for the start of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Shaheen spoke with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.
Favorite vacation spots: Hilton Head and Kauai
Favorite piece of music: “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. “The live version, released in 1991, is considerably better. This is why I’m a geek.”
Favorite book and author: Anything by Tom Peters
Favorite movie: “Nothing in Common”
Best sports movie: “Hoosiers”
Favorite comedians: Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld
Fantasy job: Head of an Olympic Games
Basic management philosophy: Keep your nose to the grindstone and be prepared to outwork everyone else.
Biggest challenge: Balance, not only achieving it but fundamentally determining exactly what that is.
I read that you wanted to be the director of homeland security. Were you serious?
Shaheen: Yeah. I get to work with those folks in my job. I really enjoy crisis management and always think it would be a fascinating challenge.
Talk about challenges. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament takes place over little more than three weeks. What percentage of your time during the year does the preparation for the tournament take up?
Shaheen: A substantial portion of every day. Probably 50 to 60 percent of my time.
About selecting at-large teams for the tournament, you said, “The fact is, there are more good teams than ever before, and distinguishing one team from another is more difficult than it has ever been.”
Shaheen: Prior to this job, I was a fan of the event. I always watched with great interest how the selections would turn out, and then was fascinated by the media’s significant and continuous parsing of the decisions of the committee. When I became a staff member … it became clear to me that there was a gap of understanding between what happened in the room and what was perceived to happen in the room.
So, you invited members of the media to go through a mock selection process.
Shaheen: We’ve worked hard to enhance our relationship with the media to help them better understand how we operate. The idea of doing a mock selection came up and our committee encouraged it. We tried it as a pilot program last February with really interesting and exciting results.
You have one play-in game. A suggestion was made that there be a play-in game for each of the four regions. Is that a possibility?
Shaheen: Just a side note from a semantics perspective: That is an opening-round game because it actually is part of the tournament; it’s not a play-in. I think the committee continues to be aware of and study any one of a number of options.
There have been calls to open up the tournament to more teams.
Shaheen: The committee has continued to examine it, what the options are and how it could be done. To this point, they have determined that the timing isn’t necessarily right. But they are committed, just like anything else strategic in the best interests of the game, to revisiting it often to assure that we stay on top of that perspective.
Do you foresee the day when the tournament is all-inclusive?
Shaheen: I had the pleasure several years ago of spending an afternoon with John Wooden, and I listened to him describe his perspective on an all-comers tournament, if you will. He is a brilliant and insightful legend of the game and it does give you pause to think. At the same time, you have to recognize that most of our teams do have an opportunity to make it into the postseason in the final week in their conference tournaments. Those tournaments, quite honestly, are the beginning of the NCAA championship.
What was John Wooden’s take on an all-inclusive tournament?
Shaheen: He just thought it was a fair and appropriate way to go at it. He was very eloquent, as he is with all things, and he described his perspective in supporting [the idea that] no one should be left out.
About the NCAA’s four-year hospitality deal with RazorGator, you said, “One component of what we’re trying to do is get better control of our own event.” What did you mean by that?
Shaheen: As our event has grown, the use — or misuse — of tickets for the event has become a greater and greater concern for the committee. We studied it for many years before determining that this was a way to start making sure that as the underwriter of the event — in essence, the ones putting it all together — first of all, that there was a legitimate way to get tickets at all times and that buyers could confidently know they were getting a legitimate ticket. And, second, that the proceeds from that program would be going to the NCAA’s mission: to education, to various athletic and scholarship programs that our 1,000-plus members put on every day.
David Lord, CEO of RazorGator Experiences, called the NCAA Final Four the No. 2 corporate event, behind the Super Bowl. What NCAA sport do you think has the greatest potential for growth and revenue as a corporate event?
Shaheen: I think it’s in almost every direction I look. The women’s Final Four has sold out for nearly two decades. The men’s College World Series has developed a legacy in Omaha, Neb., that is remarkable and continues to grow. But it’s sports like lacrosse when you have 50,000 people for the lacrosse championship. Just up and down the board you see a variety of championships that are doing better and better in terms of crowd and broadcast attention. You have lacrosse, softball and the NCAA football championship. You look at sellouts in volleyball and wrestling and you realize that a lot of these sports are coming into their own.
An NCAA TV network: Is that a possibility?
Shaheen: I think anything’s a possibility. If there is a way for us to maximize exposure and effectiveness for our membership and the sports we oversee and the mission of higher education, then there’s nothing that’s off the board.
What’s been your most memorable NCAA moment?
Shaheen: My most powerful one predates my working here. I went to the Final Four in 1980 with my dad. At the time, I told him that I had decided, after attending the semifinal games, that my career decision was that I was going to run the Final Four one day.
How old were you?
Shaheen: I was 12.
This career spotlight is courtesy of the SportsBusiness Journal. CLICK HERE to visit their official website.