GCI takes over as Great Alaska Shootout sponsor

Beth Bragg

The Great Alaska Shootout has a new title sponsor, one that hopes for a return to the glory days when top-ranked college basketball teams and huge crowds filled Sullivan Arena.

GCI and UAA have entered into a multiyear deal that makes GCI the primary sponsor of the Thanksgiving-week college basketball tournament held every year since 1978.

GCI replaces Carrs-Safeway, which ended a 20-year partnership with UAA in early November, before last year's tournament.

The move is the latest high-profile move by GCI, the telecommunications company that recently became the owner of KTVA.

As the Shootout's title sponsor, GCI will put its name on a tournament that in recent years has suffered from lack of interest, both from local fans, marquee basketball teams and national television.

Attendance has plummeted from the days when Sullivan Arena sold out for Shootout games, largely because the tournament no longer attracts big-name teams. The Shootout's last three champions were Harvard, Charlotte and Murray State. The tournament's first three champions were N.C. State, Kentucky and North Carolina.

"We're excited to bring an energy and new life," said Paul Landes, a senior vice president for GCI. "We're committed to promoting it heavily across the state."

The goal, he said, is for the Shootout to become "a sold-out event and return to its place as the annual event all Alaskans forward to."

"Look at Thanksgiving week," Landes said. "You have dinner, but there's not a lot of other activities going on, and this tournament ought to be the highlight of that week."

Keith Hackett, UAA's first-year athletic director, said the school learned in early November that Carrs-Safeway was dropping its sponsorship of the tournament.

"We purposefully kept it quiet. We didn't want that to be a big topic at the Shootout," he said. "But we immediately began looking at sponsors."

GCI had already stepped in as the sponsor of the Shootout's $1 million shot contest, which lost its long-time sponsor, Vito's Auto Sales, over the summer.

"It didn't take long to understand what a great partnership this would be," Hackett said.

The Shootout, which brings seven NCAA Division I men's teams and three women's teams to town each year to compete in a five-day tournament along with the Division II UAA men's and women's teams, has an annual budget of $700,000 to $750,000, Hackett said.

Neither UAA nor GCI would provide details of their deal, other than saying it is for multiple years and includes cash and in-kind donations.

"It's a substantial commitment," Landes said. "We prefer not to mention the exact dollar amount."

When Carrs-Safeway began its Shootout sponsorship in 1994, it signed five-year deal worth $1 million in cash and services, at least half of it in cash, according to reports of the deal at the time. The contract was renewed several times, most recently in 2011, when the grocery store chain signed a three-year extension worth a little less than $200,000 a year, according to UAA's athletic director at the time.

Landes said GCI's cash contribution "is important because you have to fund the event."

"But the exposure is really important, and that's what we're going to focus on," he said.

Though GCI is in the television business, its connection with the Shootout won't alter the tournament's national exposure, at least in part because UAA still has a TV contract with CBS Sports Network.

But Landes promised lots of statewide exposure, which could mean some televised games and will definitely mean lots of promotions, contests and other things that could bring fans back to the tournament despite the lack of high-profile teams.

Perhaps the biggest name among teams coming to the 2014 tournament is Mercer University, which knocked out Duke in the first week of this season's NCAA Tournament. Also in the men's field are Washington State (a former Shootout champ that is coming off two straight losing seasons), Colorado State, Missouri State, Rice, Pacific, UC-Santa Barbara and, as always, UAA.

The women's field includes Boise State, Long Beach State, Yale and UAA. None of the Division I teams made this year's NCAA tournament.

"Sometimes you don't understand the quality of the tournament's till it's gone," Hackett said, noting that two teams from the poorly attended 2013 Shootout -- Harvard and Tulsa -- were part of this year's March Madness.

Hackett said it will be tough to return to the days when Kentucky, North Carolina and other elite programs celebrated Thanksgiving at the Shootout. Back in 1978, the Shootout was one of only three tournaments where teams could play "exempted" games -- games that don't count against a team's season-long maximum number of regular season games, a number set by the NCAA. Now, Hackett said, there are 100 such tournaments.

In 2011, the Shootout got a controversial $2 million boost from the state's capital budget. At the time, UAA officials said some of the capital-budget appropriation would be used to reduce in-state airfares for tournament fans coming from places other than Anchorage and some would be used to increase the appearance fees paid to visiting teams, something that is routine among early season tournaments. According to numbers provided by the school in 2011, the Shootout's guarantees ranged from $55,000 to $110,000 per team.

Hackett said UAA doesn't plan to ask the state for more money to plump up the Shootout.

"We need to figure out how to do this ourselves," he said.

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.