This is the quiet season for sports fans. There is a lull in the sporting world. The mighty NFL has just wrapped another season, College Football has crowned a new champion, baseball has yet to report to spring training, the NBA is just nearing their All-Star break, and the NHL is only now making a final push for their real season (the playoffs). February is when the sports world begins to turn its eye towards College Basketball. College Basketball, you remember them right? Yes it does still exist.
I realized the other day when talking to some friends, college basketball has in a way faded to the background of sports. I know that may seem like a wild notion given the Final Four is coming off a record-setting 2014 March Madness. But why, if there are record numbers, has my interest in college basketball dwindled? I know some of my lack of interest may be generated by the poor teams in my area (Mizzou and SLU) but I have lived through down seasons before. And no I am not just some football or hockey diehard, I truly love the game of basketball; especially the college game. The atmosphere of college basketball games, especially conference games, are intense. Anything can happen, five well coached players can defeat a talented team on any given night. However I can count on one hand the amount of times this season I have watched a full basketball game. So why? I think that in large part March Madness is a direct reason as to why college basketball seems to be fading away.
Looking at the most recent numbers (2013-14 season) there were some high-profile games that drew large numbers. ESPN had four of the top five highest rated games last year including the highest rated game, Duke vs. Syracuse the day after the Super Bowl which drew a 2.9 rating. But let’s take a closer look at the tv numbers. Of the 942 games televised last year only NINE drew higher than a 2.0 rating. Even worse 770 drew lower than a 0.5 rating. So despite the record tv contracts, the record tv ratings; it is clear college basketball has put all of its effort in marketing March Madness.
The emphasis on March Madness has pinpointed the tournament as the jewel of the game. And it should be. The championship tournament of any sport should be the crown jewel. But look at any crown and there is always more than one jewel, they have smaller just as valuable jewels that make up a brilliant crown. By expanding the field to 68 in recent years they have lessened the intensity of the regular season. I saw the other day commentators talking about Michigan, who was 13-9 a the time, and their chances of making the tournament. The commentators had just talked about how Michigan had lost to N.J.I.T, SMU, Eastern Michigan, etc. yet said “well if they can get to 18 wins they should be in”. Woah. Hold on, really? This is a team that deserves to compete for a championship? Teams no longer care about winning each team they take the court, they know a loss is okay. Instead they focus on reaching 18-20 wins and put their mathematicians to work on compiling a strong RPI.
In their haste to build March Madness into a must-see event, and that it has become; the NCAA has taken away the importance of regular season games. Duke-North Carolina, while still great historical match-ups, has lost its luster. Who cares who wins the regular season title, even the ACC title, it’s about getting a top seed in the national tournament.
Another factor I feel led to lack of interest is obviously the lack of consistency in rosters. It’s the one-and-done culture. I used to be able to tell you the star of every ranked team. Now, I don’t know if I can even tell you who is ranked or even name every player on the Mizzou or SLU rosters. This is a problem. When fans can’t identify star players, you lose the edge in marketing. Of course since their marketing is solely based on March Madness…..
And yes I know people say well how can you force someone to go to school, to forfeit making a career off their skills. Well the sports world is different from other businesses, just look at the anti-trust exemption rules they are governed by. Allowing one and done, hurts both the college and professional games. Rarely are you getting polished players ready for the NBA and college lacks establishing any faces of the game. Sure the players get to the NBA and get paid, some enjoy long careers. But how many truly reach their full potential? How many would benefit playing competitive basketball, being taught the game at the college level? I feel basketball should institute a baseball system. Let them come out after high school (and NBA executives need to resists drafting just for potential and giving false hope) but if they go to college they are in for at least two/three years.
College basketball is still a great game, a wonderful sport to watch. Unfortunately fans often need player cards to tell who is on the team. Where if you want to see your team’s star you better find a way to a game this year because next year the only way you will see him is on tv in the NBA. It is a shame because a college basketball game in December can be just as exciting as one in March. But come March, no one will think anything less because they will have their sheet in hand, ready for March Madness and the NCAA executives will smile because they will have another slam dunk success.