The Grand Canyon Basketball Problem

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Grand Canyon basketball piques national interest. With a former NBA All-Star whose pro exploits were primarily local as its head coach; a gorgeous, new arena, filled to capacity with rabid students at every home game; and a quick rise to success in just a few years as a Div. I program, how could it not?

I found the mystique emanating from GCU basketball to be genuine covering last year’s Final Four in the Phoenix area. The university’s band performed at the Reese’s All-Star Game, and members of the ballyhooed Havocs student section showed up en masse to support Grand Canyon guard, DeWayne Russell. Their presence gave the All-Star Game a much more lively atmosphere than the previous year’s edition in Houston.

Havocs helped fill out the Oregon student section for Saturday’s national semifinal, which was situated just in front of the media seating. They stood out, particularly in contrast to the members of Arizona State’s 942 Crew — creators of the celebrated Curtain of Distraction — who joined Gonzaga’s earlier semifinal. Whereas the ASU fans I observed were quite clearly impartial spectators, Grand Canyon’s students learned some of Oregon’s cheers. They rabidly rooted on a Ducks lineup that included Casey Benson, a Phoenix native who transferred to GCU in the offseason.

The Havocs’ dedication was impressive. I can see why the program engenders so much interest.

Oh, Grand Canyon is also publicly traded on NASDAQ, ticker symbol LOPE — that’s a reference to the athletic department’s Antelope nickname — making it the only for-profit university in the NCAA. That’s often the hook to this growing interest in and coverage of Grand Canyon basketball, with ESPN the latest outlet to spotlight the budding program.

GCU’s for-profit model typically feels treated as more of an interesting factoid separate from the basketball program, like Bill Walton spotlighting the UCLA School of Engineering’s robotics program during a telecast. However, Grand Canyon’s for-profit distinction and the rise of Antelopes basketball are unextractable from one another. Grand Canyon basketball exists as a modern-day equivalent to University of Chicago football at the turn of the 20th century.

Advertisements for Grand Canyon, which air at all hours across a variety of television networks, prominently feature the festive atmosphere of Antelopes basketball games. The promo highlights the university’s affiliation with the Division I Western Athletic Conference; a league that once hosted a national championship-winning football program in BYU, and three current members of the Pac-12, including in-state counterparts Arizona and Arizona State.

Athletic programs in the 21st century function as marketing tools for most Div. I universities, so GCU is no different than any of its counterparts in that regard. But the Grand Canyon University pitch, with basketball at the forefront, also markets the product of GCU; the LOPE ticker symbol investors can purchase on NASDAQ at around $90 a share.

The myriad issues with for-profit education attracted increased media scrutiny in the past half-decade, and necessary federal intervention as a result. Grand Canyon — which opened as a private, non-profit university six decades before going public — balances the conflicting principles of being for-profit with the purpose of a college education more effectively than its counterparts. However, I am of the opinion Grand University’s for-profit status will hinder Grand Canyon basketball’s goals of becoming a full-fledged “monster,” as Myron Medcalf describes. 

This is a unique problem for Grand Canyon — but at the same time, it’s not so unique.

An investor trading in LOPE can add DIS (Disney) to her or his NASDAQ portfolio, or TWX (Time Warner), or ADDYY (adidas), all of which have some not-insignificant stake in college basketball (one so much so, it’s indirectly tied into the sport’s biggest, current scandal) .

In much the same way Antelope hoopers play key roles in marketing the GCU product, the participants in a national college basketball telecast or NCAA Tournament market the product of those media companies — and do so while prominently displaying the logos of apparel companies. 

The rise of Grand Canyon basketball is indeed intriguing, but not for the details typically covered. At a time when the basic concept of college athletics and amateurism is at odds with the billion-dollar realities in football and men’s basketball, the rise of Grand Canyon basketball shines a particularly harsh light. The idea of student-athletes as employees seems especially clear when they’re at the forefront of a publicly traded company — and, really, they all are in one way or another.