Ratings Madness! So-So Tournament Improbably Swims Upstream!

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Nobody’s ratings in sports are going up. None. Not even the mighty NFL, which reached for excuses like the Election, and then fought tooth and nail after it was over to just break even.

At least that’s the conventional wisdom.

So how then did the first two rounds of this year’s Big Dance pop a solid PLUS-10% over 2016? If you believed everything you saw and read on social media, this year’s dance has been “Meh-minus” at best. Not only has there not been a single overtime game in 48 games (plus the 4 play-in’s) but there hasn’t been a game-winning shot with even as much as 5 seconds left on the game clock.

Forget the horn-sounding, red-light, mid-air swishes that seemed so commonplace a few years ago. This year, possible daggers are getting snuffed out by teams like Kentucky, who denied Wichita State TWICE in their last two possessions with soul-reaping blocks.

Furthermore, everybody is bitching about the (usual, but now magnified) marginal college officiating. Never mind that we’re talking about no more than a dozen really bad calls over 48 games. You might think bad calls, plus tedious replays would dampen viewership.

Nope.

So what gives? How? Well… I have a few theories.

1. CBS/TNT/TBS/TruTV Have Done a Great Job
If this seems like a needless pat on the back, it’s not. Presenting all of these games in an organized fashion – plus working with the NCAA to schedule them properly – is no small feat. While I would have liked less of a glut of late night games on Sunday, you can’t argue with the results. The Duke vs. South Carolina game drew a monster number. Almost 18 million viewers! Also, the play-by-play teams were all good-to-great, using a mix of CBS and Turner talent. And I’ll even give the NBA studio creatures credit. Ernie, Kenny, and Shaq have finally hit their stride, and make for “stick-around-at-halftime” viewing.

2. Screw Cinderella
With only two so-called “Mid-Majors” in the Sweet 16 (Butler and Xavier, who let’s be real: play in the Big East now!) the number of teams you can solidly eliminate from winning their next four games is not much bigger than four. That leaves a wild 12-team fight to cut down the nets, something we really haven’t had in a long long time. Cinderellas who stun somebody on Thursday, often end up handing somebody else a 30 point win due to mental and physical exhaustion come Saturday.

3. Passion
It’s cliches to remind everyone that in the pro’s you play for the name on the BACK of the jersey, while in college it’s the opposite. But then again, that’s why it’s a cliche to begin with. It’s true. Right now the NBA is practically begging fans to hate it, especially with the “I Want Full Pay, for a Reduced Work Schedule” mentality. Two straight weeks NBA teams have flipped the bird at their TV sugar daddy on ABC, by resting starters wholesale. It’s a joke. And America is well aware of it. I went back and checked Michael Jordan’s games played numbers. He played in ALL-82 games while winning three titles in a row, and laboring deep into the post-season, in his age 32, 33, and 34 seasons. Give the public a couple of college teams that can run, dunk, and shoot threes… PLUS… play like it’s the LAST game they’ll ever play in their life (which for many, it is!) and they’ll eat that up. And while it’s always been this way with the college product, what’s changed is that the indifference in the pro game (defense, anyone?) makes the Tournament taste even sweeter!

4. Technology
The smaller minded thinking was that the streaming the games on your tablet or phone would reduce, or hurt traditional TV viewership. Look again at the NCAA’s reported numbers on digital streams: WAY UP, also! Just like some people thought the proliferation of smaller “riverboat” casinos in the 90’s across America (and Indian reservations) would strangle Vegas. Totally wrong. It just got people wanting MORE of that thing they had tasted. If you are filling out brackets online (totally easy, click-click-click) and you are watching a game here or there on your phone as you ride home on the train.. then you are likely going to ALSO watch on your TV when you get in the door. This is not rocket science.

Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see what the overall numbers do. I would imagine they might level off just a bit. The tourney did take a big hit with Duke (the team everyone loves to both root for AND to hate!) bowing out early, as well as name brand Villanova representing the large market East Coast I-95 corridor.

But UCLA v. Kentucky should be one for the damn ages, and we might just get some real buzzer beaters this weekend amongst the heavyweights. Either way, it’s nice to see one of the single greatest sporting events year after year, show that she’s not just aging gracefully, but she might be even hotter than ever!

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