TV Sports’ March Into Madness

NCAA tourney exhibit A in how greed kills goose with golden eggs

NC State's Jim Valvano and Dereck
credit Greg Hatem

Americans aren’t particularly good at moderation. Put a buffet in front of them, and they’ll eat until the American Medical Assn. has to intervene.

Still, that’s become the formula associated with sports networks, where gluttony is the order of the day, and cable channels are proliferating faster than Oprah Winfrey can hand out cars.

The NCAA basketball tournament — in its design and drama — remains arguably the premiere sporting event of the year, even if its ratings don’t rival football’s. So it’s perhaps appropriate the tourney would come to define the prevailing sports-business-TV model, from its Darwinian aspects to how quality has been severely diminished through a combination of greed and overkill.

With Fox’s long-awaited announcement of plans to launch a national network dubbed Fox Sports 1, each major broadcaster now has a dedicated cable companion — including the reigning titan, Disney’s ESPN/ABC.

They join a growing roster of networks devoted to individual teams and conferences, such as the Big 10 and Pac-12. Undaunted by the threat of rising cable bills, franchises are leveraging the hunger for live programming — the one genre perceived as being largely immune to DVR owners’ ad-zapping habits — to slice off their own precious real estate, leaving multichannel video programming distributors to sort out the details.

While the NCAA tournament has embraced the designation “March Madness,” the insatiable appetite for sports channels is a form of madness all its own — one in which fans, who will inevitably bear the brunt of the cost as it passes down the food chain, are just as culpable as owners and operators.

College basketball, meanwhile, has come to exemplify everything that’s right — and wrong — with sports, particularly those opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, where CBS has teamed with Turner Sports to televise every single game across the network and a trio of cable channels.

In theory, it’s wonderful — a feast like none other in sports. Look closer, though, and the NCAA is peddling a diluted product, which has actually benefited, ironically, from being worse than it was.

The rules governing the eligibility of collegians to turn pro (established by the National Basketball Assn., not the NCAA) have yielded a parade of “one-and-done” players — kids who stop at a college for a single year en route to the NBA. The system fosters corruption and has caused enormous churn in the quality of a school’s team, since a successful season invariably means most of the top stars will leave that spring.

In a perverse way, this scenario has played out to the tournament’s advantage, increasing the likelihood a historically unsung program — think Gonzaga or Butler — can effectively compete with storied ones, like Indiana and North Carolina. Business, in other words, is booming, even if the talent level has radically diminished.

Even ESPN — one of the main cheerleaders for and beneficiaries of the present environment — recognizes all this, albeit limited to the confines of gauzy nostalgia. After its NCAA tournament selection analysis show March 17, the network will air a splendid documentary, “Survive and Advance,” chronicling North Carolina State’s improbable upset of Houston in the NCAA championship 30 years ago.

Directed by Jonathan Hock, the feature-length doc includes an interview with North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who — along with several colleagues — talks about how vastly superior college basketball was three decades ago, when marquee players stayed in school for four years.

“The rivalries got even stronger,” Williams says. “The games were better. The players were better.”

Such sentiments, however, have little place on ESPN — or indeed, anywhere in the sports world — most of the time. That’s because talking heads are too caught up in the moment, giddy over who might be this year’s Cinderellas, heroes and buzzer-beaters.

“Survive and Advance” features a reunion of the North Carolina State team — most of its members now in their 50s — reminiscing about their victory over heavily favored Houston, whose slam-dunking exploits earned it the nickname Phi Slama Jama.

“If you were a Hollywood guy, and you were writing a script about how it was supposed to end, people wouldn’t believe you,” says Ernie Myers, one of the former players, in the doc.

Indeed. And if they wrote that screenplay today, the Wolfpack could likely re-live and celebrate its shining moment on its very own sports channel.