TBT poised for continued growth with player-caliber higher than ever

By Neel Madhavan
Medill Reports

The roots of the The Basketball Tournament can be traced back to a group text message thread from a Sunday afternoon in 2010 between some like-minded friends.

On their day off from work, TBT CEO and co-founder Jon Mugar and his friends went back-and-forth about the feasibility of having an open call for a single elimination tournament for a large sum of money.

“Who would enter?” Mugar asked. “Would LeBron put a team in? Would the NBA players play? Would college alumni teams play? Would international players play? It kind of became an obsession over the course of maybe four or five months.”

Mugar, who worked as a writer and producer for sketch comedy shows on IFC, Comedy Central and HBO prior to TBT, admits the idea seemed a little far-fetched at first, but he remained persistent. He would go to a coffee shop some days and work on a document pitching the idea of the tournament, and then he’d send it around to people in the industry looking for feedback.

“We pitched it for like two years and no one would do it cause they all loved the idea but, who are we to pull it off?” Mugar said.

In 2014, Mugar and the initial core TBT team decided to use the feedback they received and raise the money themselves to put on a 32-team tournament in Philadelphia for $500,000.

TBT has grown in all kinds of measurable ways since its inception in 2014, including being nationally televised on ESPN to the prize money for the winning team increasing to $2 million. But, according to the guys who participate in the tournament, the biggest way it has grown is the talent and caliber of player that it draws on an annual basis.

“The players that are playing this year are some of the best in the world,” said Carmen’s Crew and former Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. “So, a lot of guys are wanting to take a chance at the opportunity to win some money. I know when you get better players, you get better games, and you get better games, you get more fans to watch.”

Overseas Elite’s Jeremy Pargo (left) brings the ball up the court against Carmen’s Crew’s Aaron Craft (right) in the semifinals of The Basketball Tournament at Wintrust Arena on Aug. 4, 2019.(Neel Madhavan/MEDILL)

Overseas Elite and former St. John’s small forward D.J. Kennedy feels the same way. This was his fifth year playing in TBT and having been a part of an Overseas Elite team that has won the tournament four years in a row, he’s seen the rise in the talent level first-hand over the years.

“It’s a lot more competitive,” Kennedy said. “Every year it gets tougher, that’s why I feel like this year it’s been toughest for us, talent-wise because there’s more talent than ever. Each year you’re going to see more pros and top-level players that want to join.”

For Mugar, he says the goal is for TBT to grow to the point where it’s on the level of March Madness and the NCAA tournament.

“We feel like we can own basketball for four weeks of the year, and we feel like we’re pretty close already,” Mugar said. “Right after [NBA] Summer League ends we come on and we’re the show for three-and-a-half to four weeks. So, we want to keep amplifying that and growing it, and just getting in front of more and more fans.”

Photo at top: Team Hines’ Mike James (left) drives into the paint against Brotherly Love’s Frantz Massenat (right) in the quarterfinals of The Basketball Tournament at Wintrust Arena on Aug. 2, 2019. (Neel Madhavan/MEDILL)