Q&A: Robin Harris on the Ivy League’s Tournament, Regular Season

For the first time this year, the Ivy League will hold a postseason tournament to determine its automatic bids to the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments. Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris spoke with NYC Buckets earlier this week to discuss preparations for the tournament and how it has affected the regular season so far.

KW: This is the first year with a conference tournament, and we’re all seeing how it plays out in the Ivy League. I’ve had a couple observations so far that I want to ask about: First, it seems there really has been more interest in teams that have lost a couple games already, specifically around whether they can get into the four-team tournament. Have you seen the same thing, and would you say was that one of the objectives?

RH: That was definitely one of the objectives of the tournament, to maintain and actually enhance the focus on the regular season, because it allows teams that stumble early — that might otherwise be out, in theory, from competing for the actual championship when we relied on the regular season — they now have an opportunity to at least qualify for the tournament as the fourth seed. And we’ve really seen this work very well in lacrosse.

On the flip side of that coin, I’d point to something [Princeton women’s coach] Courtney Banghart said about the Penn-Princeton game a couple weeks ago. She said that she hadn’t been less nervous for an Ivy League basketball game in 20 years. Do you think that’s a common feeling among coaches, players, and fans this year — where maybe if the whole regular season is still important, individual games are seen as less nerve-racking?

Well, I find it hard to believe that someone involved with the Penn-Princeton game wouldn’t think of that as a huge game — that’s such a tremendous rivalry. And we have so many tremendous rivalries in the Ivy League. Our players and coaches are incredibly competitive, and they want to win every game they play. So I’m sure that every game still matters to players, coaches, and avid fans.

When the tournament was announced last year, there was a specific note that the official Ivy League championship would still be based on the regular season results. With the postseason tournament being such a big deal, do you think that championship is still something that’s seen as valuable around the league?

I definitely think the championship will be seen as valuable, and will be treasured by the teams on the men’s and women’s side that win it, because winning the double round robin schedule is a testament to any team. That’s why we had valued it for so long. The tournament came about because as March Madness has grown and developed, our student-athletes and coaches felt that they were missing out on part of that championship league experience. So it was very important as the tournaments were evaluated and considered, that we don’t damage the regular season, that we maintain the fact that our true champion will be the regular-season winner.

I would say that I hope you’re right. There are some leagues where a regular season championship really does stand on its own — I’m thinking of English soccer in particular, where there are some tournaments that are a big deal, but also the regular season is a really big deal. But there are also leagues, and frankly I would say most of American sports, where the regular season is viewed as just a setup for the playoffs, and the playoffs are what matter. Do you see those two visions as something that can coexist, and how do you keep it that way?

You’re exactly right, because there are some leagues where that is true. First of all, not every league recognizes their champion as the regular-season winner. There are a large number of leagues that recognize their tournament winner as the champion, and the regular-season champion is not their official champion, they get a “regular-season” designation. We were very purposeful in specifying that our regular-season winner is our champion, and we’re going to work hard on our terminology with our broadcast partners at ESPN, that the tournaments are exactly that — they’re not championships. We’re going to have a tournament winner, who will be the tournament champion, but they’re not the Ivy League champion for the year. They’re our automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. That’s very important semantics to the athletic directors.

Also, the concern about making sure that there was still tremendous importance in the regular season is one of the reasons why only four teams are going to be in each gender’s tournament. We’ve seen it work in lacrosse. It’s worked. There’s still a regular-season winner who is our champion. Now, in lacrosse, they get home-field advantage for the tournament. We’re not in a position right now to do that — because we wanted to combine the men’s and the women’s basketball tournaments, and once you combine the men’s and the women’s, you can’t say we’re going to the higher seed, because it could be different schools.

But this is also a format that we’ve put in place for this year, and the athletic directors will continue to evaluate how it works, and we’ll make modifications if necessary. In the past, when tournaments were considered, even though the coaches wanted them, there was disagreement on format. We finally got to the point where people just said, “You know what, let’s just try it and see how it works. If we have to modify the format, we’ll modify the format.”

On that point, this year’s tournament will be at The Palestra, but the league has said that the location for future years will still be determined. What sort of criteria will be used for deciding if it should stay at the Palestra or go somewhere else?

The Palestra was an obvious location for us to have our first tournament. It’s the cathedral of college basketball, it’s in our footprint, it’s a terrific venue — we’ve hosted a playoff there that had an unbelievably electric atmosphere — so it was really a pretty easy determination to go to The Palestra. To be at one of our home venues helps with the cost factor, frankly, because a neutral site can be much more expensive. We want to make sure tickets remain affordable for our fans, so we had to evaluate all that.

The athletic directors were very specific that The Palestra was approved for one year. We’ll evaluate after this year and decide what to do in future years. We can look at neutral sites, we can look at going back to The Palestra, we can look at all sorts of different venues.

I’m sure a lot goes on behind the scenes to make a tournament like this actually happen. What’s been something challenging that you didn’t necessarily expect, in terms of planning or preparation?

I need to knock on wood, we’re still a month and a half out: So far, things are going very smoothly. We have in the Ivy office a staff member, Celene McGowan, who is spearheading the tournament planning with a working group with representatives from each school. Celene used to work at the Atlantic 10 conference, and she was heavily involved in their basketball tournament, and we have individuals on the working group that have worked in other conferences and are very familiar with those tournaments. So we have a lot of experienced people who understand the operations of tournaments, and they also understand the Ivy League, so it’s been very collaborative so far.

Penn has been incredibly collaborative, and we are going to make the venue as neutral as we can, in covering up Penn’s signage. We want it to be an Ivy venue. We’re going to assign locker rooms based on seed, so if Penn were to qualify for the tournament, either on the men’s or women’s side, they may or may not get their own locker room.

You mentioned the lacrosse tournament as a model. Are there any other specific conferences or best practices you’ve seen from other tournaments out there?

It’s my understanding, at least in basketball, I know we’re the only conference that only takes 50% of our membership to the tournament — and the only one with four, because we’re obviously one of the smaller conferences. So I think it makes for a great event, because it’s completely manageable for fans: You come Saturday and you can see four games, and then you come Sunday and you see a wonderful doubleheader of championship games. Some of these other tournaments have grown into these five-day affairs, with four games for 2-3 days in a row. I love basketball, but that’s a lot of basketball games to watch. Ours is very manageable, and it’s actually going to be quite affordable.

Something I’ve been curious about: In the process of deciding to have a tournament and sorting out the details, were there cases where the interests of the men’s teams and the women’s teams were different? And how did you work to bridge that gap?

Actually, they were fairly similar. The things we had to manage is the game times, because we have the men’s games on ESPN linear television [ESPNU for the semifinals, ESPN2 for the final], and that determines the game times there based on their windows, and then we had to carefully think about the best options for the women’s teams, to put them in the best position to have a terrific experience. So that was something we had to balance, where we want to maybe in the future tweak our game times a little bit, but that’s dependent on television windows. And the women, they’re going to be on ESPN3 on Saturday, which these days is almost like being on linear television, and on Sunday they’re on ESPNU. So we’re very excited about that.

Not only will there be the games on the ESPN networks, but you’ve also announced a formal shootaround the day before, with a lot of content on the Ivy League Digital Network, which I’m personally pretty excited to see. What’s your vision for that day and for the event more broadly?

I’m glad you asked about that, because that’s been a big initiative of our staff and the school staff that work on the digital network — to be able to have what we’re calling “wraparound content”. That would be on Friday during shootarounds, so that people who can’t get to shootarounds can be a part of the tournament. And then even on game days, as long as ESPN is not on the air, we’re going to be able to have content as well. That is likely to include the net-cutting ceremonies on Sunday, and other interviews before the game or between the games. So we’re very excited about that.

Anything else you’d like to say?

We’ll see how it plays out this season. I know that, for the student-athletes on the teams that haven’t started out with wins, this gives them an opportunity to still be competing for something beyond pride. Our student-athletes have always competed with pride and class, and even those teams that have started out with a number of losses at the beginning of the season are typically playing really hard, and can have an impact on our Ivy champions through the end of the season, because they are playing for the pride of their own teams. I think that will only be more so with tournament stakes involved. I do think every game matters.