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February 9, 2010, 03:02 PM ET
Is the NCAA couch-diving for chump change?

by John Gasaway

The story so far. In day-to-day life I’m a happy meliorist who makes fun of how college football fans act like each annual futzing with the clock rules in their stupid four-hour games is tantamount to the Dreyfus Affair. But then talk starts to circulate about expanding the NCAA basketball tournament to 96 teams and suddenly I’m kissing the family goodbye and living in a tree outside NCAA headquarters, armed with a bullhorn and a sign that keeps a running tally of my hunger strike.

So I should be linking to Michael Hiestand’s piece in today’s USA Today in order to say: Yeah! Right on, dude! Money-grubbin’ NCAA, messing with March Madness, and for what? Chump change! (Actual headline: “NCAA chasing loose change with an expanded basketball tourney.”) But regular readers know I have this weird stay-off-my-side gene, where someone agrees with me in print and my first reaction is often: No, the real problem with the thing we’re both against is X. (I blame endless childhood arugments with an older brother who is now an attorney. I went 0-612.) So let’s get to it.

Hiestand:

Consider that CBS’s first-round NCAA time slots last year, which combined regionalized audiences from overlapping games, averaged 4.2 percent of U.S. TV households. Showing teams that wouldn’t make the tournament in its present format likely would produce smaller ratings.

[snip]

So if the NCAA–getting more than 85 percent of its revenues from its CBS deal–ends up watering down college basketball, it won’t be because TV networks are demanding new, underwhelming NCAA tournament games. Sure, TV networks–especially ESPN–will always take more tonnage. No, if the NCAA cheapens college hoops, it’s because it’s doing something that might be quite familiar to its unpaid athletes: Looking under its couch cushion for every coin it can find.

If the ratings are going to be so tiny, why on earth would ESPN or any network or indeed any entity with watchful stockholders ante up for the rights to 16 newly-created first-round games?

One clue is suggested by staggeringly capacious adjective “first-round,” a label which takes in everything from 1-vs.16 blowouts, to highly competitive 8-vs.-9 thrillers, to storied 12-over-5 surprises, to, most crucially, afternoon vs. evening sessions. It’s true a network might think twice about preempting a hit Thursday night scripted drama in order to televise, I don’t know, Marshall vs. Miami. But not all first-round games take place in the evening. A lot of them take place in the afternoon, in which case the game would instead be preempting ratings juggernauts like “SportsCenter” (today’s offering at 2 ET on ESPN) or “As the World Turns” (CBS). Prospectus readers know you can’t just look at a player’s stats, you also have to look at who that player is replacing.

In addition to asking “how many?” with respect to viewers, networks also ask “which ones?” If the viewership of the DVR-resistant NCAA tournament is anything like the readership of this and similar sites, it skews very young compared to the general population. And for reasons that largely escape me (old people have always looked pretty rich to me) advertisers love them some young people. I don’t want to overstate this demographic factor, but it’s notable that for years Fox has apparently been quite happy to push back the season premiere of ”The Simpsons” and its ilk and instead devote Sunday nights in October not only to the World Series, but also to the LCS’s and even, most saliently for present purposes, the LDS’s.

Then again who cares about the networks? They’ve got their bottom lines to look to and if they think it makes sense to pay for a newly-configured tournament, they’ll do it. The larger issue here centers on what constitutes “loose change” for the NCAA. Let’s accept that the difference between what a network will pay for a 96-team field and what they’ll lay out for a traditional 65-team version wouldn’t be all that much in percentage terms. Hiestand’s right: The new games would be the least attractive ones and, anyway, they’d represent just 17 percent of the programming “tonnage.” But if you’ve ever bought or sold a house, you’re intimately familiar with the paradox at work here. You negotiate a price and give a few thousand here or take a few thousand there. Then you step away and think: Sweet mother of Ben Bernanke, that right there’s the equivalent of a new car or three years of daycare for your kid, or 50 HDTV’s, etc. 

The D-I men’s basketball tournament is the NCAA’s revenue equivalent of selling a house. They negotiate these contracts by the decade, and with the revenue they generate from the broadcast rights for 16 newly-created somewhat unattractive first-round games of wildly varying quality the NCAA could easily fund entire new line-items or build a new wing or hire a flock of staff or do whatever they wish. It is far from loose change in their eyes.

(HT: MGoBlog.)         

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