Michael Elkon has a post up this morning (more on that in a sec) which links to a Wall Street Journal story about the significant decline in attendance at ACC men’s basketball games. The WSJ piece contains the most pathetic excuse I’ve ever seen given as an explanation for people not going to a sporting event:
Another broad problem: the younger the sports fan, the less they enjoy being in an arena where their smartphones can’t get a signal. “People don’t like to be out of touch,” said Doug Perlman, founder and CEO of consulting firm Sports Media Advisors and a Duke graduate. “They want to be sharing the experience with their friends.”
I didn’t go to Duke and it may be a case of my generational underwear showing, but I’m having a hard time buying that. (If that is true, then organized sports might as well prepare themselves for the sweet embrace of death, because that’s your next generation of ticket buyers, folks.) Anyway, as skeptical as I am about the article’s logic, I’m even more puzzled by an omission that Elkon jumps on.
… this is a pet theory of mine, but I am of the opinion that the NCAA Tournament has damaged college basketball because it has become all-consuming. It is so big and so hyped that there is little reason to pay attention to the regular season unless you have a particular rooting interest. What do I care about who wins a regular season conference title when all the teams are playing for are marginal seed differences in a neutral-site tournament? [Emphasis added.] If college basketball went back to its roots with a smaller tournament that only had 1-2 teams from the major conferences,** then maybe the NCAA Tournament would be less of a cultural phenomenon (we wouldn’t have to deal with office twits who tout their successful picks that are little more than the result of successful tosses of a coin), but people would care more from the start. The Big Dance is affecting interest in college basketball generally, but the effect would be most pronounced for the ACC as it had the farthest to fall in terms of fan interest. Give people a narrative and ACC basketball will be more interesting.
Let me say as somebody who based his decision on which college to attend in part on ACC basketball that I think Michael’s dead on here. One of the great sporting experiences of my life was watching Virginia win its only conference title in 1976; I don’t want to say it wasn’t exciting to see the ‘Hoos make the NCAA tournament as a result, but it sure didn’t seem more exciting at the time. When’s the last time an ACC basketball fan felt like that?
This isn’t some fly-by-night conference we’re talking about here. This is college basketball’s most storied, most passionate league, historically speaking. It’s the roundball equivalent of SEC football. If this bunch is taking a steady hit in fan enthusiasm, that’s something seriously noteworthy. And, yeah, there’s a lesson to be learned there. (The WSJ‘s point about the impact conference expansion has had is valid, too, but that’s a subject for another post.)
March Madness is fun as hell, but it’s like inflation in a sense. As it’s grown, it’s debased the value of the basketball regular season. So I’ll say it again: if you’re a D-1 college football fan fully aware that the same greedheads are in charge of deciding its postseason fate, that’s a sobering thought.
UPDATE: Chris Brown thinks the WSJ’s point about the at-home TV experience has some validity. (One more reason to worry about the BCS suits doing what they can to please the networks.)