The (Ratings) Limits of Madness
There was a basketball game on last night. Some of you watched, and many others didn’t. Neither did I.
They’re at it again. The press release CBS sent Tuesday morning brags that Virginia-Texas Tech was up 20% in TV ratings versus last year’s final matchup of Villanova vs. Michigan. Once again, that game was on TBS.
Sports TV Ratings’ Bob Seidman notes that Monday’s finals were down about 14% from UNC-Gonzaga on CBS in 2017; Bloomberg reporter Eben Novy-Williams says these were the lowest ratings for a final on CBS since 2012.
Nowhere in CBS’s press release does it disclose that last year’s Final Four games were on cable, and this year’s were on broadcast. It makes a big difference.
Here’s the thing: It all seems like such a needless projection of strength! If they contextualized the news, it would appear more intellectually honest to its audience. Furthermore, as former Fox Sports executive Patrick Crakes has been pointing out on Twitter, a bulk of the money from CBS and Turner’s NCAA Tournament rights is a) earned in the earlier rounds, and b) via monetizing subscription fees for the networks with cable and satellite distributors.
Virginia-Texas Tech was a very fun game to watch, surpassing all reasonable expectations, but the general public audience gravitates toward identifiable stars and brand name programs. Die hard basketball fans will watch the game no matter what airs, and the incremental ratings from there will rise or fall with whether casual viewers tune in.
There is also the never-ending debate of how streaming affects ratings, but that is for all television not just sports, so at this point it is baked into the cake.
I sat down for only a few men’s college basketball games this year. The first was to watch Zion Williamson and Duke play UNC in prime time, which turned into the now-infamous “shoe” game. Once he returned, I did not miss any of their games, not because I’m a Duke fan (I am of Duke Hospital System, not so much the basketball team) but because of the hype and promise of Zion Williamson as a player. He didn’t disappoint.
I did see Texas Tech play several times, since they are in the same conference with my own beloved WVU, whose woeful season did have the positive ending note of clipping the Red Raiders in the Big 12 tournament. If it isn’t my team, and you want me to watch a game that won’t end till midnight on a weeknight, I need some pretty strong incentive. I need stars. I need names. I need storylines.
I don’t think I saw a Virginia game. I know Virginia bouncing back from last year’s humiliation to win the title is a nice story. But it’s a nice story I can read about on my own time. I didn’t feel compelled to watch it. You could fairly say “well that’s your opinion” but it is an opinion that is apparently shared, as borne out in the ratings.
Fans sometimes lose perspective on things like March Madness. It is marketed well, and has become a huge event each spring. The brackets and betting are a social phenomenon each March. Even Ordinary Times did a bracket challenge. But that interest and marketing has to turn into eyeballs, and increasingly it is clear that everything pop culture and marketing-wise surrounding the tournament can only carry it so far. Underdogs and new names are popular in conversation, but not when the hard data of ratings comes out. The games have to be appealing to draw more than just the hardcore fans. That takes stars, and big names, and big time schools.
It is an ongoing issue with college basketball, and others can debate the nature of the sport. The “one and done” rule is dying it’s natural death, and in the future the NCAA might not even get the passing use of a talent like Zion Williamson. Then the casual fans will really need a renewed reason to spend their entertainment time and money on the tournament. Not the surrounding activities, or the wall-to-wall coverage of the first two weekends, but on the Monday night prime time championship games. The tournament will continue to be a cultural event, but with the sporting aspect in danger due to talent drain and no clear solution to stop that, many more people will fill out brackets than actually watch the games.
The shame of it was the Virginia v Texas Tech game was a perfectly fine game. But since casual fans didn’t know that ahead of time, and don’t care to invest without one of the aforementioned reasons, you have a lower rating. The NCAA and their network partners should really get forward thinking on ways to bring in the casual fans on the consistent basis, and having a title game without sizzle go till midnight on a school/work night isn’t it. To be fair, there may not be any good answers to the ratings dip, but CBS, Turner, and others are spending a lot of money on the product of the NCAA Men’s Tournament, and they will want some assurances of a long-term plan now that they are locked in till 2032 at the price of $8.8 Billion. If the ratings don’t improve over the next 13 odd years, you can bet they will want a discount on the next deal.
So congratulations to Virginia, and honorable try to Texas Tech. But appealing enough to get the casual fans to watch? It just wasn’t. Nor was it for me.
Sorry, not sorry.