Fading Popularity of College Basketball

Does the success of underdogs in March lead to dissapointing TV numbers in the regular season?

While flipping through the channels this past Saturday night I luckily stumbled across the week’s marquee match up as Michigan State hosted Michigan, a rare in-conference rivalry in today’s constant musical chairs of conference realignment. East Lansing was indeed energetic as several high profile basketball and football recruits looked on from behind the benches. The third ranked Spartans held a small lead at half, but after an impressive shooting performance down the stretch Michigan went on to win by five, or so I read the following day. After all, it was Saturday night and a game between ranked opponents in January means little for the outcome of their season. My decision to change the channel is slowly becoming the norm for all too many college basketball fans, leaving those still watching to wonder where did everyone go?


The popularity of regular season college basketball is dwindling across the nation, as 2013 saw nearly 89% of televised games with a rating below 1%, meaning less than 1% of the general population with a TV tuned in to watch college basketball. Once casual fans like myself are now seeking reruns of The Big Bang Theory over the week’s marquee match-ups. I only use The Big Bang Theory as an example here because it’s consistently one of TV’s most popular shows, my distaste for it can’t be summarized into words. However, these staggering regular season numbers are in sharp contrast to the NCAA’s end of the year basketball tournament. Undeniably the nation’s most impressive sporting spectacle, the 64-team playoff pins David vs. Goliath in what is one of the most viewed and talked about events of the year.


Few sporting events in the nation have as widespread of a financial and cultural impact as the NCAA Tournament. Its ability to bring masses of uninterested fans together to fill out brackets is truly a spectacle in itself. Jacquelyn Smith at Forbes estimates three million employees will spend between one and three hours watching games and checking scores instead of working, an estimated $134 million in lost wages. So while the regular season witnessed historic lows in spectators, “March Madness,” as it is colloquially known, saw unprecedented highs. 2013 recorded a 4% increase from the previous Final Four as well as being the highest rated and most viewed in eight years. So as the regular season and postseason continue to diverge one must begin to speculate if the NCAA’s golden goose is now contributing to disappointing regular season ratings.


The tournament’s win or go home format makes for an undeniably entertaining month of basketball but it is in part this reason why many viewers are unconcerned with the rest of the season. The volatile nature of the NCAA Tournament may be a factor in reducing lack of interest in regular season play but it shouldn’t shoulder the entire blame, as recent NCAA actions have done little to garner fan enthusiasm. Between increases in ticket prices, conference realignment, potential expansion of the NCAA Tournament, and program instability as a result of the “one and done system,” many casual fans are simply losing interest. Where’s the fun in having to watch your local team from home, knowing the two best players are leaving after their freshman season, you won’t be playing your rivals in a meaningful conference game, and the undefeated season means nothing come the middle of March? Obviously this doesn’t apply to every program in the nation but I would be surprised if not one of these instances occurred at every university.


Is there a scapegoat to take the blame for recent disappointments in TV ratings? Not in the least bit. It’s easy for one to place blame on the NCAA, as the responsibility ultimately falls on them, but at the end of the day college sports are a business and as long as football continues its financial domination basketball will continue taking its seat in the back. So while some in the media are quick to place blame on the NCAA Tournament for deterring viewers in the regular season, I for one am thankful for the popularity of March Madness. For three weeks every spring the eyes of the sporting world are stuck on the hardwood, and while media pundits discuss bracketology and the methods behind their picks, fans are simply allowed to enjoy basketball. March Madness truly is the pinnacle of what the sport should be and in two short months we’ll be greeted by this spectacle once more. But as the latest ratings show, many fans will spend those next two months away from the sport, instead watching The Big Bang Theory, and this is unfortunate in more way than one.