Jennifer Todd, co-founder and executive vice president of strategic partnerships of The Basketball Tournament, is the first to admit basketball was not her sport. In college, she was a gymnast.
So how did Todd go from being “an OK gymnast” to co-founding a top amateur hoops tournament? She met The Basketball Tournament CEO Jonathan Mugar in 2012 through a mutual contact. Mugar came up with the idea. “It was a much bigger idea, which I think is typical of businesses and what they grow into,” Todd recalls.
She had just finished working for Super Soccer Stars, which teaches children’s soccer skills. Todd “was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I knew I wanted to start a business, and I had some of the skills he needed,” she says. “Had you told me seven years later this would be a full-time job, I probably would not have believed you. People don’t create sports properties, really.”
Todd, who holds an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, admits it was a big undertaking and “probably a level of we didn’t know what we were getting into, which is probably a good thing, or we might not have done it.”
What they did do was create The Basketball Tournament, or TBT, an open-application, single-elimination tournament played each summer in the United States, currently featuring 72 teams and offering $2 million in winner-take-all prize money, broadcast by ESPN’s family of networks. Not only do the teams share in the prize money, but the top 1,000 supporters of the winning team share 10% of the prize as well.
“Jon was a Division III basketball player at Tufts, so basketball was his sport,” Todd says. “He was looking at how fans were digesting basketball at the time. That’s where the concept came from.”
Basketball is “a sport that is pretty saturated,” she points out. There’s NCAA and March Madness and the NBA’s fanbase has grown over the years. “There are many talented individuals who don’t make it to the pinnacle of the sport, but with exposure would be on an NBA bench.”
TBT was relatively easy to start because there wasn’t a huge startup cost, Todd says. “In other sports, equipment is expensive, for rental for fields or hockey rinks. We really needed uniforms and a ball to play.”
Todd thinks that because she is fond of other sports—she plays tennis and enjoys Peloton cycling—that she has a good perspective on basketball. “I do appreciate basketball as a sport,” she says. “I’m a big sports fan. I’m probably the least basketball knowledgeable on the team, but I think that allows me to be the most objective about the sport. It allows me to stay objective in what we are doing.”
For the first four years, Todd ran the event and the template for how Boston-based TBT was operated, which involves regional competitions and a championship game.
This year, the sixth annual tournament championship will be held Aug. 6 in Chicago, with regional tournaments played in Columbus, Ohio; Greensboro, North Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; Memphis; Salt Lake City; Wichita, Kansas; Syracuse, New York; and Richmond, Virginia. Now, Todd is responsible for more marketing, partnerships and sponsorships, and TBT’s social content.
Todd says social content is the biggest thing that has changed the sports industry over the years, from the way players are able to promote themselves to them being a sponsorship asset that they sell.
“It’s a huge shift in how the industry operates,” she says. “Even if you are an NBA team, you don’t have control over what your players do to promote themselves. Growing TBT has been as much as a promotional exercise and communications exercise as anything else. Our players are our marketing engine. The bigger our tournament grows, the more exposure they get. We work together in that way. Trying to make our players and teams better marketers is an interesting part of the challenge.”