Air ball: Eye’s NCAA hoop ratings dip

Ratings for entire tournament off more than 20% this year

HOLLYWOOD — A men’s basketball tournament that started on the wrong foot and never recovered ratingswise ended Monday with a record-low turnout for the championship game.

Syracuse’s 81-78 victory over Kansas attracted an average of 18.57 million viewers, according to Nielsen, a 22% falloff year-to-year. That’s 10% below the smallest previous audience for the title game — 20.59 million for the Michigan State-Florida matchup three years ago.

By comparison, the college football championship game on ABC in January averaged 29.1 million.

In adults 18-49, Monday’s hoops action averaged a 7.5/18, down 19% year-to-year but still enough to give CBS the night (5.9/15) over NBC (5.2/13).

Ratings for the entire tournament were off more than 20% this year. The war in Iraq is a prime reason why, as bombing began just hours before the first game tipped off March 20.

CBS farmed out the first window of games to ESPN March 20, before resuming coverage later that day.

This is the 22nd consecutive year CBS has carried the NCAA men’s basketball final. Net reupped its March Madness deal four years ago and will air the tournament through at least 2012.

Elsewhere Monday, ABC’s “The Practice,” with an episode mocking the “reality” TV boom, again ran fourth for its hour (3.1/7 in adults 18-49) — well behind basketball, NBC’s strong “Third Watch” (5.3/12) and Fox’s reality skein “Married by America” (3.7/8).

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