The ball is tipped…
Well, at least it will be 710 days since the last NCAA Tournament, seeing as last year’s event was the first major sports casualty due to Covid-19. The Big Dance is back but it’s without familiar faces Duke and Kentucky. How much will that affect ratings? Only time will tell, but the ratings for the NCAA tournament, after missing last year, will be as interesting as a tool as we have seen in a long time for college basketball.
“I almost think it doesn’t matter,” said Doug Gottlieb of Fox Sports Radio. “It’s a yearly event but I think the whole thing has created less interest in college basketball. I don’t think it’s the only reason college basketball is less interesting, but I also think the timing is not great for it to be on TV, because it’s spring and all the sudden people can start doing stuff. Whereas, when the NBA first came back, it was like, thank God there’s something back on. I almost think people forget there wasn’t an NCAA tournament last year.”
“I think there’s a bigger appetite because it’s the longest time period we’ve gone without an NCAA Tournament,” said Gary Parrish of 92.9 ESPN in Memphis and CBS Sports. “I think people are anxious for it.”
It’s been an extremely down year for the traditional blue bloods in college basketball. In a sport that’s normally centered around a handful of teams, just about every single one of the usual suspects is having a down season. Duke and Kentucky aren’t even in the NCAA tournament. North Carolina is an 8 seed, Michigan State and Syracuse are both 11s, and Kansas is 3 seed. It’s never a good thing when the most important programs are almost all down in the same season.
“Not having some of the biggest brands in the sport is not helpful,” said Parrish. “That’s my understanding based on history. I think if you could try to get the biggest rating you could get, you would have a Final Four of Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and maybe UCLA. The idea Duke and Kentucky aren’t in the NCAA Tournament, as well as Indiana and Arizona, it doesn’t mean that great stories won’t materialize or that Gonzaga being undefeated isn’t a big draw, but not having some of the big brands isn’t ideal.”
“People like to see Duke lose, as much as they like to see Duke win,” Gottlieb said. “When I was at ESPN, I was told the five schools that rate in college basketball are Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Kansas. The only kind of asterisk is that some of the schools in the Big Ten do really well. The Big Ten being good helps, especially since the entire tournament is in Indianapolis.”
As a state, Kentucky easily rivals both North Carolina and Indiiana as the most college hoops crazy state. However, neither UK or Louisville made The Dance. It’s not something that happens often, so a decrease in one of the highest rated markets for the NCAA Tournament could be a big negative.
“Well it’ll be less than normal,” said Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio. “When Kentucky and Louisville are in, Louisville is often the highest rated market in the country for the tournament. I don’t think that will be true this year, but there will be a lot of people watching. I’ve talked to a lot of fans that said they were down, but when the bracket was revealed, they got excited again. It’ll be down but this place still loves basketball and people will watch.”
Even though it’s considered by some to be the biggest draw, the remaining big brands in the sport being shown an early exit by a Cinderela team would be a huge negative for the ratings. Illinois-Chicago making another deep run in the NCAA Tournament along with, say, Liberty, Utah State and San Diego State would not have a positive impact. For ratings purposes it would certainly be best if Kansas made a deep run, along with an unexpected run by North Carolina and Michigan State.
“We have this belief that everyone watches for the Cinderella team,” said Gottlieb. “They do, but they’re not going to turn on the TV the next time to watch Cinderella play. They like to see Cinderella play the big boy and they turn on the TV to watch the big boy.”
It’s truly a mystery on what the overall attention to the NCAA Tournament is going to be, and depending on who you ask, the answer might be completely different. There’s a real argument to be made that missing a year of The Dance is going to fuel a ratings spike like we haven’t seen in recent years. People of all ages still look forward to filling out brackets every year, so regardless of who’s playing, the first weekend could be a ratings bonanza. However, the popularity of college hoops isn’t exactly trending upward and the absence of the most recognizable brand the sport has to offer could really be damning.
So does a best-case scenario exist with the current field? Is it best for Gonzaga to complete the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1976?
“The ratings won’t be as high, obviously,” said Jeff Goodman at Stadium. “The casual fan may not be as interested, but I think the diehard college hoops fan may have more fun and be more locked in watching this year. The storylines are different, and you also still have more people working from home so that should help with the ratings. But they won’t be as good. That’s the reality.”
Regardless of what happens, the overall ratings easily has become one of the most intriguing storylines of the entire tournament. Sadly, this will be, quite possibly, the only week where college basketball will be the biggest thing going in sports. The NCAA Tournament has been such a big draw, but the uniqueness of that first weekend makes people feel it’s the only weekend where they have to watch the sport. Its biggest positive is almost it’s biggest detriment.
“I do think it’s a factor, but i don’t think it’s the factor,” said Parrish. “I think the biggest issue facing college basketball is that there’s almost no carryover from one year to the next, in terms of great players. Just like Zion Williamson at Duke. In college football, you see a guy like Trevor Lawrence as a freshman and you know he’s going to be there for two more years. In college basketball, Lawrence is there for one year and then he’s gone. Everyone knows the coaches, but the notable players are almost entirely new every year. No mainstream American sport has the roster turnover like college basketball has.”
Someone will be cutting down the nets on April 5th, but the number of people watching might be more intriguing than the team standing on the ladders with scissors.