Ah, March Madness and the NCAA basketball tournament — TV’s ticket to hoops heaven. The buzzer beaters. The blocks. The boredom.
Boredom? As basketball announcer Marv Albert might say, “Yes!”
Structurally, college basketball’s sudden-death elimination format remains the most exciting event on the sports calendar. Yet the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. has gradually diluted the quality of its product — and threatens to do so even further, as the organization flirts with plans to expand the 64-team field to 96, an everybody-gets-in approach clearly motivated by greed.
Leave it to the NCAA to make like a modern-day Goldilocks: College football is messed up because the university presidents won’t adopt even a modest playoff system — despite prodding from, among others, first fan President Obama; and basketball might become “ludicrous,” as the New York Times’ George Vecsey rightfully called it, by embracing a playoff formula that seriously devalues admission to the “big dance.”
For TV networks, the NCAA’s myopia is more than just academic. The upcoming tourney will occur as the NCAA nears the end of an 11-year, $6-billion TV contract with CBS — and weighs whether to opt out of the deal after the Final Four in April, or allow it to run three more seasons. CBS and Turner Sports are contemplating a joint bid for future rights, according to SportsBusiness Journal, well aware that ESPN — the marauding beast that has eaten most of televised sports — is also stalking the property.
ESPN operates in the tonnage business, trying to corner the market on major events that once belonged to broadcasters, from “Monday Night Football” to the Bowl Championship Series. For CBS, by contrast, anteing up at a likely financial loss for a franchise that temporarily attracts young men every spring is a less obvious proposition — especially since those viewers tend to evaporate once the final buzzer sounds faster than you can say “Harper’s Island.”
A more nebulous issue involves whether college basketball still measures up from an entertainment standpoint. Because arguably, the so-called “one and done” rule introduced five years ago — requiring players to be at least 19, or a year out of high school, before leaping to the NBA — has seriously marred the quality of action at the collegiate level.
Granted, the system appears to be working out well enough for the NBA, helping whet the public’s appetite for raw talents who can use additional seasoning. But the churn associated with premiere players quickly leaving has exerted a deflating effect on several storied programs, such as North Carolina, Arizona and UCLA (alas, my alma mater), which rapidly descended from championship contenders to also-rans. Indeed, after an exodus of first-round NBA picks, the entire Pacific 10 conference is operating at a level not far removed from junior college ball.
As for the game itself, coaches have grown adept at obscuring a lack of talent with a deliberate (translation: boring) style of play, where they pack in zone defenses and dare opponents to score. This generally results in the ball being passed around the perimeter for 30 seconds until someone jacks up a hurried shot — and final scores as close to those posted in baseball as to the average NBA game.
Despite those deficiencies, the tournament possesses enough equity to ensure somebody will pay the NCAA billions for TV rights, and all it takes are a few good upsets — the equivalent of David slaying Goliath, or “The Hurt Locker” topping “Avatar” — to captivate fandom’s collective imagination.
Leaving nothing to chance, CBS’ College Sports Network will devote 80 hours of programming to complement the tournament, which for the first time will be presented in 3D via 100 digital cinemas. Hell, the network even enlisted Jennifer Hudson to belt out its trademark tournament-capping song, “One Shining Moment.”
So if CBS is destined to lose the NCAA tourney to a rival bidder, the network looks determined to go down swinging. Still, for those who appreciate the finer points of college basketball, the game’s shining moments have become increasingly few and even farther between.