Nearly five hours before a men’s college basketball doubleheader on Nov. 19, Mike Flanigan paid close attention to the Madison Square Garden floor. The arena was nearly empty save for a crew setting it up following a Dave Matthews Band concert the previous night.
Flanigan was there, too, as were some colleagues from the Gazelle Group, the Princeton, N.J., sports events and marketing company that ran the Empire Classic, which featured Connecticut, Indiana, Louisville and Texas.
As a few men affixed sponsor decals to the court, Flanigan watched to make sure the advertisements were in the correct spots. No detail was too small.
Flanigan, a senior vice president, is in charge of securing sponsorships for Gazelle’s events. Companies paid a large amount of money to have their brands tied to the Empire Classic, so Flanigan wanted the on-court decals to be in positions that were most visible for people in the arena and on television. He also worked with MSG staff to ensure the rotating advertisements that displayed courtside, on the video boards and throughout the arena were ready once the games began.
Across the U.S. and even in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean this time of year, numerous executives like Flanigan and companies like Gazelle are in similar situations. In November and December, there are 76 men’s college basketball tournaments and multi-team events (MTEs), according to Blogging the Bracket, an SB Nation website that tracks these events each year. All but 24 of the 362 schools in Division 1 are participating in a tournament or MTE, which are run by event organizers such as the Gazelle Group, ESPN Events, KemperLesnik, bdG Sports and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The NCAA’s rules encourage teams to play in MTEs, although the organization forbids programs from playing in more than one MTE per season. Teams can play 29 games if they do not participate in an MTE, but they are allowed to play in 31 games if they are part of an exempt MTE. The MTEs are often scheduled a few years in advance.
While some events fall under the radar and are played in front of small crowds, others provide fans with intriguing matchups before the conference schedules begin in earnest in January and help bring attention to a sport that is overshadowed by the NFL and college football. Teams participate for various reasons such as testing themselves against tough opponents, earning some easy victories before facing a difficult conference schedule or generating revenue from event organizers that want them to play.
Mike Broeker, Marquette’s deputy athletics director, said he consults closely with coach Shaka Smart when putting together the non-conference schedule.
The three priorities are “who do we want to play, where do we want to play and when do we want to play,” Broeker said. “That’s really the magic of the non-conference schedule and how do we marry that with all of our program goals around experience, quality competition, maybe a particular area of the country we want to get to.”
The Gazelle Group this year is organizing and running three MTEs, where teams meet in the semifinals and advance to play in the championship game or third-place game, as well as four non-bracketed tournaments, where four schools play in a round-robin format over 10 days. The company is in charge of four, one-day events, too. All told, 45 teams from 15 conferences are involved in Gazelle events this month and next month.
“We don’t try to apply this one size fits all (approach) and just sell people on what we want to do,” Gazelle Group founder and President Rick Giles said. “We’re very good at listening to teams and listening to what they want to do and being able to deliver what they want to do. I think that’s what’s enabled us to be as successful as we’ve been over the years and kept us around as long as we’ve been.”
In fact, the Gazelle Group has been in business for nearly 30 years, longer than almost all of its competitors. After graduating from Princeton University in 1983, Giles moved to New York like many of his classmates. He worked on Wall Street and earned a masters degree from New York University.
In 1986, an NYU professor told Giles about a job at a consulting firm in Connecticut. Giles wasn’t interested, but he mentioned he had thought about working in the sports industry. The professor recommended Giles contact someone at IMG, a sports marketing and management powerhouse.
Over the next several weeks, Giles called and sent letters to the IMG executive, to no avail, before he finally got an interview and then a job offer. Giles spent eight years working for IMG’s television and events division, an experience he credits for shaping his business acumen.
In 1994, following the birth of his first child, Giles had the entrepreneurial itch and was tired of the long commute from IMG’s New York office to his home in Princeton. He spent time at his parents’ cabin in Maine and wrote several business ideas in a notebook that still hangs on a bulletin board in his Princeton office.
“I thought if I don’t do this now, I’ll blink and I’ll have too many kids to do it,” Giles said.
That Labor Day, Giles officially launched the Gazelle Group without a concrete business plan but confident he could make it work. Giles consulted for the America’s Cup, a yachting event he had worked on while at IMG. And he spoke with Atlantic City, N.J., officials about hosting a college basketball event that would draw a younger crowd to a city that had lost its luster as a tourist destination.
The sales pitch worked, and the Gazelle Group ran its first college basketball event at the Atlantic City Convention Center on Dec. 9, 1995. The Atlantic City Shootout was a doubleheader that aired on ESPN2 with Penn State defeating Penn 88-61 and La Salle upsetting Marquette 68-65.
“By probably most objective standards, it was a complete disaster,” Giles said. “It just wasn’t that good. We came back and said, ‘OK, how are we going to make this better and actually have a business here?’ And when I say we, I mean me.”
After one more year in Atlantic City, the event moved in 1997 to East Rutherford, N.J., when the Gazelle Group struck a partnership with the National Association of Basketball Coaches and received a special exemption from the NCAA to have the event kick off the season.
Since 1998, the event, now known as the Empire Classic, has been held at Madison Square Garden every year except for 2020, 2021 and 2022 when it was in Connecticut, Las Vegas and Brooklyn, N.Y. It has often included ranked and high-profile teams such as Duke, which has participated four times.
Mike Cragg, the St. John’s athletics director, remembers meeting Giles in the late 1990s when Cragg was the sports information director at Duke and helped put together the Blue Devils’ schedule. Duke was interested in playing in the Northeast and especially Madison Square Garden, so Cragg and Giles got to know each other.
“We were very strategic about scheduling and intentional and creative,” Cragg said. “Rick, with his efforts and tournaments, was a part of our strategic thinking…To be successful in any business, any part of your life, you have to be trustworthy, you have to be honest and you’ve got to develop those relationships. He’s always been that to me and somebody I trust.”
The Gazelle Group has launched several other events, as well, although there was a time when Giles wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep going.
In December 2000, the Gazelle Group and other college basketball event promoters filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, which was attempting to change a rule that could have ended the early season tournaments. Back then, teams could play a maximum of 28 games per year, but the NCAA granted the Gazelle Group’s tournaments and other events a special exemption so those games would not count against the limit.
Over the next few years, the NCAA only allowed teams to play in two exempt events over a four-year span, a rule that the Gazelle Group and others fought in court. The sides eventually agreed to a settlement that saw the “two in four rule” abolished beginning with the 2006-07 season and the event organizers receiving some compensation.
“We were really happy that we were able to get them to settle this lawsuit because it could have gone on for a few more years,” Giles said. “Maybe we would have won anyway and would have won more money, but it was time for it to end. It was in the best interest of the sport.”
Around that time, Giles had an idea to create a postseason event to compete with the National Invitation Tournament, which the NCAA took over in 2005 and reduced the field from 40 to 32 two years later. Giles saw that more than 50% of college football teams competed in bowl games, whereas fewer than one-third of college basketball teams played in the postseason, so he thought there would be some interest for another tournament.
In March 2008, the Gazelle Group launched the College Basketball Invitational, a 16-team event that is still in place. Teams pay an entry fee to participate, and the tournament has been held in Daytona Beach, Fla., since 2021.
“We know we’re not the NCAA Championship, but by the way, neither is the NIT,” Giles said. “We just offer another postseason opportunity for teams to come together and play.”
During his nearly three decades in college basketball, Giles has developed relationships with coaches and administrators from all levels from the likes of Duke and Kentucky to small conference schools.
Chris Woolard, Kentucky’s associate athletics director for basketball operations, has known Giles for the past 20 years dating to when Woolard was an associate commissioner in charge of men’s basketball at Conference USA. Woolard wanted C-USA teams to have as many teams as possible in the NCAA tournament because teams that are selected receive money that is split among their league’s programs. Gaining an at-large NCAA berth is predicated in part upon how teams schedule in the early season.
“A lot of that was trying to put our teams in the right non-conference matchups and environments,” Woolard said. “I developed a great relationship with Rick to figure out how we could partner together and give our teams in Conference USA a lot of opportunities that made sense for each of those teams.”
Since Woolard arrived at Kentucky in 2011, he has remained in contact with Giles. This month, the Gazelle Group helped Kentucky run a three-game event where the Wildcats played home games against Texas A&M-Commerce, Stonehill and Saint Joseph’s. Those three teams played each other, as well.
The Gazelle Group ran similar events this month that were hosted by Cal Baptist, Duke and Nebraska. Gazelle was in charge of scheduling teams and officials for those games and helped run and manage the events. Next year, they will manage an event for Marquette, which will host three games at Fiserv
“It allows us to maximize home game opportunities, which is critical for us,” Broeker said. “The more home opportunities we can play is great for our fans, and just financially it’s a very good thing.”
He added “We’ve had a very long relationship with Rick. He’s a man of his word, and the experience is terrific. Ultimately, that’s why you get repeat business – when you deliver on your promise. He’s done that every time we participated in an event whether we hosted one on our campus or participated in one somewhere else.”
Some of Gazelle’s other events have different business models. With the Empire Classic, for example, Gazelle rents Madison Square Garden for two days and pays for the crew, game officials and other workers and compensates teams for competing. The company earns money through sponsorships, television advertising and ticket sales.
This year, the semifinal doubleheader of UConn-Indiana and Texas-Louisville took place on a Sunday afternoon and drew a near sell-out crowd at the 19,812-seat arena. Afterward, UConn coach Dan Hurley called it an “awesome atmosphere.” The next night, nearly 11,000 tickets were sold for the championship and third-place games, which UConn and Indiana won, respectively.
Giles arrived at the arena hours before the games began and sat courtside while the teams played. It was a far cry from 28 years ago in Atlantic City when Gazelle got into the college basketball business.
These days, Gazelle dabbles in other areas, including running the Holiday Face-Off college hockey tournament in Wisconsin on Dec. 28-29 and representing college basketball coaches. Still, the company generates most of its revenue from its college basketball events. Giles mentioned that at this time of year he often wakes up in the middle of the night and jots down notes or sends emails with ideas on how to improve Gazelle’s events.
“This is the fun time,” Giles said. “I always say I’m fortunate because I wake up and I love what I do. I love to work hard. There are a lot of people out there in the world that would give up their job to plan hockey and basketball events for fun. I’m lucky enough to get paid for it.”