Watching the NCAA Tournament Remains Popular: Duh

Posted by Chris Johnson on June 24th, 2013

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be found @ChrisDJohnsonn. 

College basketball is an extremely entertaining sport to watch. Starting in November, when non-conference play mashes together different conferences’ best teams in far-flung locations for fun, tropical, typically thrilling elimination tournaments, and on through April at the annual national championship net-cutting ceremony, college basketball is never not awesome. For college hoops diehards, this is one of the most obvious statements of all time. Of course watching college basketball is great. Other North American sports fans will respectfully disagree, instead opting to peek in at college hoops in the early weeks of spring, right as conference tournaments heat up and teams kick into next gear for their last-gasp bubble pushes.

An excellent Final Four brought correspondingly strong TV ratings (AP Photo).

An excellent Final Four brought correspondingly strong TV ratings (AP Photo).

Whether you follow college basketball all year long, or have long since dedicated yourself to becoming a March hoops hanger-on, the fact remains that the NCAA Tournament is unflinchingly popular. No matter your level of interest in the progression of teams and coaches over months of non-conference and conference competition, when the brackets start flying off the copy machine, and C.J. McCollum is leading No. 15 Lehigh to a massive upset of near universally-loathed Duke, you’re TV remote is affixed firmly to your reclining chair arm rest or furniture of choice. When the lights turn on, you’re sitting down, losing valuable time at your day job, anxiously checking scores at every available digital outlet and watching. You’re watching the NCAA Tournament.

That last part is the most important to remember. It’s the reason the NCAA rakes in over $700 million annually for the men’s basketball tournament it hosts. It’s the reason the regular season can, if only minimally, wrestle through the nation’s hypnotic fall inter-football stranglehold to attract casual fan viewership for important conference match-ups. The NCAA Tournament doesn’t need superstar players specifically, or compelling storylines more generally, to glue eyeballs to TV sets. The tense drama of a single-elimination format is a huge draw unto itself; anything can happen in a one-game sample size. That’s why fans keep coming back.

Year after year, suspense is palpable, thrilling upsets are normal occurrences, and the possibilities for the absolutely insane are a basic expectation. With the exception of Florida Gulf Coast (and maybe Wichita State), the early rounds of this year’s NCAA Tournament were comparatively ordinary. The Final Four fixtures were some of the better and more evenly-matched national semifinals we’ve seen in recent seasons. Wichita State came within four points — and very easily could have slayed the Cardinals for good — of knocking off heavy favorite Louisville, and the clash of Michigan’s high-powered offense and Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone, ratcheted up to peak Boeheimian intensity throughout the Orange’s Tourney run, was as fantastic as it sounds. And the National Championship game, highlighted by the first half’s ridiculous Spike Albrecht vs. Luke Hancock three-point duel, will easily go down as one of the best games of the entire season. As national finals go, you couldn’t have asked for much more out of Michigan-Louisville. It was superb.

Apparently, the fans thought so too. Overnight TV ratings quantify viewing eagerness, and this year’s Final Four broadcasts were predictably well-worn watches. In fact, more people tuned in to college hoops’ thrilling final three games than the NBA Finals or the Bowl Championship Series bowl games. According to a report from Sports Media Watch, the Final Four drew an 11.0 Nielsen rating and an average of 18.3 million viewers. By contrast: the NBA Finals, which just showcased one of the most popular athletes on the planet (LeBron James) winning his second consecutive championship and Finals MVP trophies at the expense of a dynastic Spurs outfit, finished with a 10.5 rating and 17.7 million viewers. The five BCS bowl games averageed an 8.8 rating and 15.1 million eyeballs.

Cynics will wail, NBA fans will patronizingly scoff, and media critics will assert college basketball’s growing reversion into bona fide niche status. That’s not an entirely false classification: College basketball’s fan base is composed of a smaller, perhaps more specifically-purposed, university-aligned portion of the national sports-viewing public. Fewer people watch college basketball on average than the NFL. That distinction will never change; by its lights, the NFL doesn’t belong in the same discussion with any other sport in terms of popularity or TV ratings.

For the first four months of the season, college basketball doesn’t attract the same widespread appeal in most coastal media markets – which, for TV purposes, are the most important hot spots – as college football or the NBA’s respective regular seasons. The postseason is an entirely different discussion. March is the province of college hoops; the link between sport and month has remained taut (and grown more lucrative) through decades of unforgettable NCAA Tournament experiences. Disputing the sport’s authority over those three action-packed weeks of the sports watching calendar was a specious argument to begin with. This year’s TV ratings provide hard evidence.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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