There are times, believe it or not, when I wonder if I’m being too critical of people like Jim Delany and Mark Emmert when it comes to their business acumen. I mean, nobody can be as blind to trends and economic developments as I make those guys out to be sometimes, right?
The NCAA Tournament followed a massive jump in ratings with a big tumble last season after switching the title game to cable TV.
The NCAA’s response: Give it time.
“You have to look at it over periods of time, not in one-year blips,” Mark Hollis, chair of the NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball committee, said Monday. “We’re in extremely good position as far as interest.”
The NCAA agreed to a 14-year deal with CBS and Turner in 2010, with the two companies essentially acting as one under the contract, combining on all aspects of the contract while alternating years on the Final Four.
The 2015 NCAA Tournament saw a huge surge in ratings for the game between Duke and Wisconsin, posting its highest average viewership in 22 years with 11.3 million viewers.
The Final Four was on TBS last season, marking the first time it aired on cable TV. Ratings for the entire tournament were down across CBS and the three Turner networks — TBS, Turner and truTV — and the title game drew a record-low rating, dropping 37 percent from 2015.
Gosh, who would have ever thought that pulling your signature event off the public airwaves and moving it to cable would have a negative impact on viewership? Obviously not the humble herdsmen who took the best deal they could get. Plus, it’s not all bad news.
“The difference in rating was somewhat predictable … the number of homes CBS is in than TBS is different,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships. “The thing that struck me was that both CBS and Turner were thrilled with the numbers. They sold out all of their ad inventory weeks before the tournament. From an NCAA perspective, as long as the games are broadly available, then we are accomplishing our goal for the fans. Whether it’s on CBS or TBS, that’s the key.”
Yes, indeedy, the networks are thrilled, so the NCAA is doing its best by the fans. Gavitt, who used to be an associate conference commissioner, by the way, sounds like a man who thinks he’s quite accomplished at making lemonade from lemons. He’s just careful to avoid drinking his product — which means he has something in common with the 37% who skipped the Final Four.
For those of you who think college football postseason expansion is going to work out swimmingly, despite mounting empirical evidence to suggest otherwise, what should give even you pause for reflection is the willingness of the movers and shakers to give away value like that in return for short-term gain (although using the phrase “short-term” in the context of a fourteen-year broadcast contract is a stretch). I don’t know where you come from, but tossing more than a third of your viewers out in a year’s time doesn’t strike me as a way to build your brand. Face it, especially when you’re talking about how March Madness markets itself to the casual sports fan, getting large numbers of those people out of the habit of tuning in makes it likely they won’t all be coming back.
Oh, but that’s basketball, you say. That doesn’t count because it’s not college football. Again, you miss the point. Football is just taking its first tentative steps away from the regional appeal that is the sport’s greatest and most unique quality. That’s a path college basketball tread years ago. It’s the path the camel herders are familiar with; they just think they know better where to walk now.
What makes them dangerous isn’t that they aren’t the smartest people in the room. It’s that they think they are the smartest people in the room. It’s easy to do a lot of irreparable damage in that mindset.
Take, for example, the biggest jewel the SEC has in its possession. Not the SEC Network, which isn’t even generating the most revenue of any of the conference arrangements. It’s the SEC on CBS. That’s the only national broadcasting deal any conference has. Jim Delany chased down Rutgers and Maryland to add viewership outposts. Larry Scott bitches and moans because he can’t land a deal on DirecTV for the Pac-12 Network. Meanwhile the SEC shows up all over America every Saturday in the fall.
That’s awesome branding. That’s why Verne Lundquist is a household figure. That’s why somebody like Brad Nessler jumped at the first opportunity from a prestigious ESPN broadcast slot to take Lundquist’s place. It’s part of what makes the SEC the SEC. Yet it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Sankey and his presidents sell it to the highest bidder when the broadcast contracts come up for renewal, wherever that means those games are shown.
It’s all part of the trend to go national, a trend that’s accelerating with the new prominence of the CFP. Don’t believe me on that? Check out what’s already happening with the bowls.
It’s not that they’re trying to kill the golden goose. It’s more like they’re trying to perform plastic surgery to improve the goose’s looks, even though they’ve never been to med school. Hey, it could work! Just ask Dan Gavitt.