College basketball programs see a visit from ESPN's GameDay crew as an infusion of credibility. Where Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas and the gang sit in front of screaming fans each Saturday matters.
Mighty Kentucky, the winningest program in college basketball history, is no exception.
For Kentucky, which plays host to College GameDay this Saturday, it's another step in re-branding a basketball program that had been trending toward irrelevance. After regularly falling out of national rankings in recent seasons, Kentucky found out last spring the true meaning of insignificance: The National Invitation Tournament.
Ebullient commentator Dick Vitale, who will be in Rupp Arena Saturday night when Kentucky plays Tennessee, might put it this way: GameDay provides another chance for UK to say, "We're back, baby, with a capital B."
"Beginning with the hiring of John Calipari, it's been a whole new re-branding," said Rob Mullens, UK's deputy director of athletics. "We want to get back to being the elite program Kentucky's been forever."
The re-branding has taken many forms:
Touting a record number of tents set up by fans waiting to pick up tickets for Big Blue Madness.
Calipari's he's-everywhere outreach program to fans.
Sending a UK jersey to President Barack Obama.
Organizing in 48 hours a telethon to raise funds for earthquake victims in Haiti.
Seating LeBron James at courtside and, in case any one missed him, have him do the "Y" at midcourt.
GameDay gives its host college basketball's center stage.
"I think Lou Holtz said, when you have the entire college football world focused on you for that day, it's a real opportunity," Mullens said in a reference to ESPN's football GameDay. "I think already Kentucky basketball is among the elite. It's an opportunity to show what's happening here."
To maximize that opportunity, UK distributed 23,000 tickets for fans wanting to attend the GameDay telecast from 11 a.m. to noon Saturday in Rupp Arena.
ESPN sees a full house as Kentucky's way of returning the favor in terms of credibility.
"We sort of see this as a defining moment for the show," senior coordinating producer Michael Fountain said. "In terms of acceptance. In terms of people wanting to see the show."
ESPN hopes the crowd in Rupp Arena can make for must-see TV. "If I'm flipping channels and see a crowd going crazy and having a good time, I want to stop and watch and see what's going on," Fountain said.
On the down side, ESPN does not want a crowd to drown out what host Rece Davis, Hubert Davis, Phelps and Bilas are saying. So Fountain said the crowd will be prompted on when to cheer and when to listen.
But just in case, Davis, Phelps and company will be given headsets to use if they can't hear each other.
ESPN launched the college basketball version of GameDay three years ago. It's been the little brother to the college football GameDay.
So far this season, GameDay has been to Kansas State, Clemson and Illinois, plus to Connecticut for its first appearance at a women's game. After Lexington, the crew will go to Washington, Syracuse and Duke.
To be part of the select company thrilled Kansas State Coach Frank Martin.
"GameDay doesn't show up anywhere," he said. "They show up somewhere where they feel people are excited about their basketball program and the basketball program's got a halfway decent chance to be pretty good."
Like Kentucky, Kansas State saw GameDay as a chance to promote its basketball program, its university and its community. It can be an infotainment special. Joni Smoller, Kansas State director of marketing and promotions, noted how the school used GameDay to promote the basketball program's partnership with the 1-7 Field Artillery. More than 200 soldiers from the unit attended the GameDay show. There was also what Smoller called a live "shout-out" from a sergeant major in Iraq.
Of course, Martin wanted the GameDay viewing audience to take notice of Kansas State basketball.
"Just that it's a whole lot of fun being a basketball player here in Manhattan, Kansas," the coach said.
Martin also hoped GameDay would help his efforts to revive the glory that once was Kansas State basketball. Surely, a potential recruit or two would be in the audience for a show that is enjoying a 50-percent ratings increase this season, according to ESPN spokesman Michael Humes.
"You look at the top 10 year in and year out, they're the same top 10" that are on national TV the most, Martin said. "TV sells. That's why the Super Bowl people can charge zillions of dollars for a commercial. To me, it's a definite advantage in the world of college recruiting."
Fountain acknowledged that college programs use GameDay as a promotional tool and recruiting aid. "Schools are going to use it to show recruits the quote-unquote big time," he said. "GameDay is here. I don't think that hurts us at all."
When asked if GameDay had an obligation to spread the wealth by taking the show to different sites (Saturday will mark Kentucky's third time as host), Fountain said that football affords more flexibility because there can be weekends without marquee games in that sport. So GameDay's football version has been to Williams College in Amherst, Mass., and Florida A&M.
Basketball's GameDay does not venture as far from the elite programs.
Clemson's aptly named director of marketing, Mike Money, saw his school's appearance as "a huge tribute" to Coach Oliver Purnell's recruiting effort.
To commemorate the occasion, Money's athletics department used the magazine it sends donors, Orange: the Experience, to send out a story headlined "Today Clemson was the center of the basketball universe."
When asked if GameDay translated into credibility, Money said, "Absolutely. The marketing potential is endless."
Kentucky is mindful of the marketing possibilities, too. Mullens included donors among the groups of people who can get excited by GameDay in Rupp Arena.
"Everybody loves to see their brand at the top," he said. "It's another special event. They got to experience something in a special way that doesn't happen every year."