Lowry_tourney The NCAA basketball tournament is traditionally the year’s best televised sporting event, and there’s little reason to think it will fail to deliver the customary assortment of upsets, last-minute heroics and sudden-death tension this time around.

       Nevertheless, the recession plaguing America and the world could have an impact on the atmosphere at the games, especially if fewer fans want to ante up for tickets or travel with their favorite teams than have in the past.

There was already an inkling of this at last week’s Pac-10 tournament, which resorted to offering $10 tickets to UCLA and USC students to help fill the Staples Center, which was conspicuously less crowded than it has been in recent years. Before the Friday-night session, I briefly chatted with a young guy who was watching the games across the street from Staples — at the recently opened L.A. Live's ESPN-themed restaurant/bar — unwilling or unable to buy a ticket, but eager to watch the games on an over-sized TV.

This dynamic might translate into higher ratings for CBS, which will once again make games available online — thus assuring that many employees who should be desperately hanging on to their tenuous jobs will instead be surfing the web at work, convinced that the outcome of West Virginia-Dayton or Kansas-North Dakota St. is the key to winning their office pools.

Still, one wonders when the atmosphere at sporting events will begin to conspicuously become less festive, offering a constant if sobering reminder of what’s going on outside the arena as cameras pan the crowd to display an inordinate number of empty seats. Don’t be surprised, too, if more struggling newspapers opt not to dispatch correspondents to follow local teams in far-away venues, instead relying on AP for coverage.

Historically, however screwed up the BCS football championship process has been (and continues to be), basketball has been the one area that the NCAA has gotten right. Granted, even with the rule mandating that high-school players must be at least 19 years old before going to the NBA, the number of one-and-done stars has diminished the general quality of play; still, the tournament has trumped that with the beauty of its David-and-Goliah matchups and lose-and-go-home elimination format.

CBS’ “Road to the Final Four” should continue to be entertaining. That said, my guess is the thrill of that ride will almost surely be negatively influenced by what’s happening beyond the court — and TV might have to put blinkers on to prevent its cameras from noticing.

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