Despite Upsets, NCAA Tourney Remains a Draw

Mar 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

This year’s NCAA men’s college basketball championship coverage has once again attracted plenty of March Madness-crazed viewers, drawn partly by upsets that have smaller, unknown schools advancing further into the tournament than expected.

The success of teams from schools such as Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and the failure of any Big Ten teams to advance to the Sweet 16 added to the unpredictability viewers have come to expect from the championship.

“Upsets are part of March Madness,” said CNN Sports anchor Courtney George. But for 2006, continued uncertainty could make the final games must-see TV for college basketball fans, she said.

“This year it may draw a bigger audience,” Ms. George said. “If one more of the big boys gets knocked out by a Cinderella, that will draw people in. A few years ago it was Kent State that got further than anyone ever thought, and America started rooting for them and paying attention. The underdog always attracts non-sports fans.”

Surprise winners may make for a terrific story, but viewers ultimately want to see teams they know, said Neal Pilson, president of TV sports company Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports.

“It’s great to have a Cinderella team, but loyalty is a much stronger factor than curiosity,” Mr. Pilson said. “You’d rather have a Michigan than some small Midwestern school that has surprised everybody. You want your big programs from the big cities to make your Final Four.”

A broadcaster’s perfect Final Four would include an Atlantic Coast Conference team like Duke University, Big East representatives like Georgetown or Villanova, a team from the Midwest-heavy Big Ten and a team from west of the Mississippi, Mr. Pilson said.

“You look to have teams that represent large population centers that have a reputation for good basketball,” he said.

Game Changer

While Mr. Pilson said the level of play and viewer interest is “not a lot different from prior years,” he said CBS’s March Madness on Demand Web-based broadcasts have changed not only the NCAA tournament but the way some future sports events will be covered.

“That is a very important new concept for two reasons,” he said. “One, it’s free and for the first time audience levels for broadband delivery are large enough to support advertisers and sponsor revenues. Second, it is on at the same time as the live network presentation.”

For events like the Olympics or the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which have far more events to cover than platforms to distribute, providing coverage of simultaneous matches or races via broadband is a “no-brainer,” Mr. Pilson said.

“Looking down the road, other content-rich major sports properties have to look at what CBS is doing with this year’s tournament,” he said.