Years ago, the Great Alaska Shootout was one of the country's premier Thanksgiving basketball tournaments, attracting many of the nation's best teams.
Today, it's struggling to stay afloat.
High-profile teams earning more and more to play at a ballooning number of similar tournaments threaten the 30-year-old Shootout like never before. Since 2004, the number of exempt tournaments has nearly tripled from 28 to 82.
It's why UAF's Top of the World Classic folded last month. And it's why this year's Shootout has its weakest field ever, with San Diego State, Portland State, Hampton, Northern Illinois, Louisiana Tech and Western Carolina joining UAA.
An eighth team will be announced soon, but it's unlikely to be one from the six power conferences.
Last year was a much different story. The Shootout celebrated its 30th anniversary by mixing star-studded names like Bob Knight, and ascendant teams like Butler and Gonzaga with talented underdogs like Western Kentucky and the hometown Seawolves.
The most competitive field in years saw Shootout attendance increase 31 percent from 2006.
But it was an aberration, admitted UAA athletic director Steve Cobb.
"The days of some of those megafields are gone for the foreseeable future," said Cobb, who has been at UAA eight years. "There are just so many tournaments, and the price for all the teams have gone up sky high. We weren't willing to get into a bidding war. We're not that kind of tournament."
Instead, Cobb said, the Shootout will become a stage for lesser-known teams not courted by other tournaments.
Take last season's Cinderella Western Kentucky, a 2007 Shootout team that got within one victory of reaching the NCAA Elite Eight. Cobb said there could be another such team this year, even if it doesn't look like it on paper.
"Almost nobody was excited about (Western Kentucky) being here and they ended up being a Sweet 16 team," he said. "A lot of these schools would be on the level (with) a Western Kentucky. I think folks are gonna find out it's better basketball than they might think."
For years, the Shootout enjoyed success luring household names to Anchorage, but the quantity and quality has dipped recently. Part of that is because teams have more options and part of it is because they seek higher participation fees.
Cobb said the Shootout pays an average of $30,000 per team today, more than double the $14,000 it shelled out just four years ago.
They have paid up to $55,000, Cobb said, but that was only because they had extra money available because a team backed out after committing to the Shootout and, by contract, had to pay UAA thousands of dollars to escape.
"We just negotiated with people that wanted to be at the Shootout," Cobb said. "We had to eliminate people who were trying to make a buck and squeeze every last dollar."
As a result, teams like Duke, Kentucky and Indiana have been replaced by Hampton, Northern Illinois and Western Carolina. But unless other exempt tournaments dissolve, Cobb doesn't anticipate that changing.
He is considering changing the tournament format by adding another game to attract higher-profile teams.
"I think it's going to be very important to add a fourth game because you can play four and only count one," he said, referring to the fact that only one game counts against teams' limits on the number of games the NCAA allows them to play during a season. "We only play three right now."
Many of the new exempt tournaments -- including those hatched by the NCAA and ESPN -- allow teams to play one or two home games before advancing to some neutral site in a major city. That means the university makes money and the team doesn't have to travel. In some cases, Cobb said, large schools are guaranteed games against low-ranked opponents, too.
"That's a pretty good formula for them -- couple hundred thousand in the bank, two wins and you don't have to travel," Cobb said. "That's pretty hard to compete against."
Cobb said he has five teams signed up for 2009 and four for 2010, including a few traditional powers. He hopes the Shootout's tradition and community support will keep the tournament alive for years to come.
"This tournament belongs to all of Anchorage and the state, and we're gonna do everything we can to keep it," Cobb said. "We're actually in better shape if we can get through this year."
Find assistant sports editor Van Williams online at adn.com/vwilliams or call 257-4335.
2008 Great Alaska Shootout
San Diego State
Cal State Northridge