The NCAA Tournament field is set. There is lots of excitement from hardcore college basketball fans. The big question is: What is the outlook for this year’s tournament in a sports environment where everyone struggles to retain an audience? It’s been 700 plus days since the last NCAA tourney. It’s also been the most challenging year in memory for sports.
I’m all in this year. My team, the Illini, are a top seed for the first time in a decade and a half. But how many people are like me? There are significant questions about the tourney’s prospects this year.
How will the NCAA Tournament fare in a year where just about every major sport is struggling? The NHL Finals ratings were off by 61%. The NBA Finals were down about 50%. The World Series ratings were off by more than 30%. The Super Bowl had its fewest viewers since 2007. The College Football Playoff Championship ratings were down by 24%.
Sports are struggling. The community aspect of fandom has been shattered, habits have changed, and sports increasingly feel like just another part of the culture war.
Gonzaga, Baylor, Illinois, and Michigan are the top 4 seeds. Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, and Indiana are out. UCLA and Michigan State squeaked in. The overall number one seed is a mid-major, and many “blue bloods” are on the outside.
Maybe it’s an opportunity to build new power brands. Maybe it’s a year destined for low ratings with major fanbases like Duke and Kentucky tuning out.
The “Marketing” success or failure of the tournament will be determined by how the initial storylines play out and by the new stories that develop. But the top seeds lack the cache to attract the casual fan.
Some stories are already defined. Will Gonzaga make a run and become the first undefeated champion since the mid-1970s? Will anyone care if Gonzaga goes on a run?
Will my new favorite player, Andre Curbelo, become a household name with his energy, upside-down Nike Swoosh, and Globetrotter-like ball skills become a breakout star? Few things can be as biased as fans, so my orange-tinted glasses are probably leading me astray. But, I think Curbelo could be the face of college basketball for the next few years.
Can the stories of 2021 overcome the lack of (team) star power? I doubt it. We have also just gone through a year where the foundations of fandom – habits and communal consumption – have been shaken. I think that we will see very low ratings.
Putting this all together and doing some back of the envelop calculations, I’m predicting a drop in the ratings of 40% for the Final Four.
This projection gives me no pleasure. But tell me what the casual college basketball fan is excited about on the eve of the tournament.
This is sad because the NCAA Tournament may be the best of all the major sports playoff systems. The tournament is college basketball’s defining event each year. It is the time when people pay attention, so it is the time to cash in and the time to build legends.
Reportedly, the NCAA earns 90% of its annual basketball revenues from the tourney. It’s different than other playoff systems in its breadth of invitations. By opening the tourney to 68 team’s it is the most egalitarian playoff system.
Playoff systems are an integral part of league design. The process of determining champions is the most exciting part of the season. When something is on the line, there is more excitement because the games matter more. Excitement means that people are more aroused and more willing to process information (talking like a psychologist for a second). In other words, the excitement means that it is more likely to change fans attitudes during the tournament. The attitudes in question are the feelings towards teams and players.
Too many teams and the early rounds of a playoff system are boring (NBA), too few, and the league leaves money on the table (but the regular season is more exciting).
The NCAA found its way to almost the perfect formula. A tournament with lots of teams but also with built in storylines of underdogs versus basketball royalty. Having a one and done structure also creates drama since Cinderella doesn't need to sustain magical 3 point shooting over multiple games.
It also seems like a playoff system that is “fair.” Everyone has a shot. But a shot to accomplish what?
Gonzaga enters the tournament undefeated and as the overall top seed. Gonzaga is a mid-major, and an enduring question in college sports business is how much can a second-level program accomplish? How much brand equity can a non-power conference team build?
The college football playoff system was partly created in response to lawsuits and threats of legislation. The Boise States of the world needed some hope. Of course, there always seem to be unintended consequences. The playoff now seems to be open only to Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and one alternate (Georgia, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, etc.) each year.
The NCAA tournament gives “Cinderellas” a legitimate shot. Butler finishing second in 2010 and 2011 is the exemplar for mid-major success. But how much brand equity did Butler create? Brad Stevens built a reputation and moved to the NBA. Does Butler now bring in elite talent and play for titles? Not so much.
There was a period when winning as a mid-major at least seemed to help a school move into a higher-ranked conference. Now, with the Power 5 conferences seemingly in equilibrium, the path to prominence is unclear.
Overall, it’s great to have March Madness back. The 2021 Tournament will also provide an important data point for the health of college basketball and sports in general. There are worrisome signs in terms of missing brands like Duke and Kentucky, a lack of household names, and a public who seems less interested in sports. College basketball is also facing challenges related to NIL and the G League. But, it is the best playoff system in sports, colleges have built-in fanbases, and fans have been waiting two years.
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