Who watches all those damn bowl games, anyway? Well, somebody does.
March Madness is huge, right? This year, the multiweek extravaganza has had its usual share of upsets, an exhilarated coach falling off his rolling chair after a victory and the presence of a dominant Kentucky team. Nearly 11.6 million brackets were submitted to ESPN.com’s annual contest. So what in college sports could be a bigger fan draw than the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament?
How about a bunch of bowl games? Yes, college football bowl games — nearly all of which had no meaning other than providing athletes with a postseason experience.
It is an imperfect comparison: a tournament with a natural direction of 68 teams reduced to a final pairing versus a bowl system that only this year introduced a four-team playoff to decide a national champion — the only instance in the history of bowl games when a winner advanced to the next level.
So it is worth noting that none of the 38 bowl games carried by the ESPN empire last season had fewer viewers than the 1.1 million who tuned in for the inaugural Camellia Bowl from Montgomery, Ala., while nine early-round N.C.A.A. tournament matchups generated audiences below that figure — Texas Southern-Arizona, a TNT telecast, was ranked last at 501,000 — based on the available data from 40 of the 48 games played before Thursday.
And I thought brackets über alles.
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The typical casual fan filling out an office tournament bracket doesn’t care about watching all the games, just seeing the results. College football, with all its warts, still manages to attract more dedicated fans. The basketball numbers will improve as the tourney progresses, but the bottom end is what it is. The difference is that college football keeps adding minor bowl games and we keep watching as they get added on.
The lessons to be drawn from this – why we have all those bowls, why ESPN invests in all those bowl games, what happens to fan interest in the wake of postseason expansion – are pretty obvious. Unless you come from the “nevermind, The New York Times sux” school of sports analysis, that is.