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College Basketball Crowns a Champ, But TV Money Is King

As the NCAA tournament began, Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Dufresne sketched out a detailed five-point plan to fix college basketball, saying it was widely agreed that the game is in “crisis.”

What a difference three weeks makes.

Dufresne nailed it in terms of identifying the diluted quality of the action, while acknowledging that “March Madness” remains a winner – “exciting, gambler-friendly and compelling even to casual fans.” Yet he missed the other factor that significantly reduces any incentive to address what’s wrong with the sport – namely, the massive amounts of TV money that keep college athletics afloat.

Those networks footing the bill are hungry for as much live programming as they can get, since sports are among the few zap-proof commodities in today’s DVR-oriented, watch-when-you-want age. That explains the 14-year, $10.8-billion deal that CBS and Turner Sports cemented to secure NCAA Tournament rights in 2010.

TV’s appetite to fill channels is also one reason why Kentucky would have had to complete a 40-0 season to go undefeated, compared to 32-0 the last time that happened, when Indiana did it in 1976.

For those fuzzy on the math, that’s 25% more games, many of them meaningless. As for shrinking scores and the poor quality of play, that’s largely a byproduct of the one-and-done rule that has seen quality players treat the NCAA like a road-stop bathroom, visiting for the short time that’s required before moving on.

The tournament, however, has once again trumped all of that. Its sudden-death format is made to conjure drama. And even if the notion of what separates a “Cinderella” from a traditional power has been diminished by changes in the game, all of that pretty much goes out the window as soon as a low-seeded team with a funny-sounding name knocks off a highly ranked opponent.

Granted, Kentucky’s potentially historic run added sizzle to the tournament (and helped boost ratings), in the same way a Triple Crown hopeful boosts horse racing. Still, even without the Wildcats chasing history the title game had everything you could want, as Duke and Wisconsin traded leads and momentum until the Blue Devils finally took control in the final minutes. Preliminary ratings appear equally stellar, hitting their highest level in 18 years, per CBS.

Of course, most of those freshmen who stood out will be in the NBA this time next year, but let’s allow the NCAA to enjoy its annual one shining moment.

Because there are so many junk sports on TV, the tournament has only grown in popularity, and CBS and Turner have brilliantly capitalized on the demand for early-round coverage by providing access to every game across multiple platforms. Somewhat perversely, the slowed-down, low-scoring nature of college hoops – while increasingly boring to a purist – is also tailor-made to fostering a heightened sense of excitement in this context, ensuring that many of the contests are close down to the wire.

Fans, of course, have witnessed some of the toll that the NCAA’s genuflection before the TV gods exacts, including half-empty arenas during the regular season due less to escalating ticket prices (although that’s a factor) than a surplus of lousy games and inconvenient start times. In Los Angeles, to cite one example, good luck getting to a 6 p.m. tipoff in rush hour on a weeknight to watch UCLA or USC play, as ordained by ESPN.

One needn’t be trapped in the black-and-white era to conclude, as Dufresne and various analysts have, that college basketball is a shadow of what it once was. Even so, the combination of the NCAA Tournament and those fat TV contracts obscure a multitude of sins, and greatly reduce the pressure to implement changes, even if the protracted regular season frequently amounts to a weak undercard before the main event in March.

There’s an element of madness in that model, all right. But in a seller’s market for TV rights, it’s easy even for the NCAA — presiding over a seriously flawed product — to look crazy like a fox.

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