You may have already heard that late Sunday night the NCAA abruptly announced the biggest change to the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball tournament (‘March Madness’) since at-large teams were first allowed in 1975 (previously only one team per conference was invited).
The short story: on Final Four Sunday, April 7, the day before the Final, there will be now be 3 so-called ‘Play-out’ exhibition games between former No. 1 or No. 2 regional seeds that have been eliminated (including Ohio State, Indiana, Duke, Kansas, Georgetown and Miami; specific matchups and times to be determined). These games carry no official significance but clearly will have strong fan appeal. CBS will schedule these games so as to not interfere with the Academy of Country Music Awards broadcast, which starts at 8pm EST.
NCAA officials explained these changes as an effort “to satisfy the unexpectedly strong recent demand among NCAA Basketball’s rapidly growing fan base, particularly internationally”. It is no secret that March Madness has evolved into an enormously popular event. Even President Obama took time from his schedule to weigh in. In addition, the event’s female viewers, already 48% of the audience, make up an increasingly ardent fan base. Still, satisfying new fans is not at the center of this decision.
The real motivator is much simpler: Money. Turner Sports and CBS, seeing early tournament exits by most of the more popular top seeds, are exploiting the networks’ unsurpassed ability to create more hours of high-quality entertainment. Advertisers have already signed on, and since the participating schools were offered a generous share of the revenues, gaining their participation was relatively simple. Only former No. 1 seed Gonzaga declined the offer, due to a conflict with a Tech N9ne concert in Seattle.
This is a sad example of short-sightedness, laying bare the craven quest for TV ratings that we now see is the real driver behind many of the sporting world’s decisions. Unfortunately, it is a severe body blow for the integrity of NCAA Basketball and big-time sports. Clearly, the theory goes, while everyone loves a Cinderella, you still don’t really expect huge numbers to tune in for Wichita State, right? So, why not just bring in the biggest names for a curtain call?
Here’s why – in this era of sports free-agency and seemingly limitless payrolls and budgets, it’s important to remember that the unexpected can and does happen – – with talent, grit and maybe a little luck, on any given day, David can slay Goliath. Hence the excitement for FGCU and Wichita State. They’re the real reason we tune in to March Madness, even if they do destroy our brackets. Diluting the event with meaningless games just for spectacle will only cheapen the NCAA brand while overshadowing the teams deserving of our attention.
So, a message to the NCAA, CBS and Turner Sports: you’ve got a jewel in the current March Madness (as long as the field doesn’t expand) – and it’s exactly what people are looking for — as is.