Saturday, April 4, 2009

tournament and media

Al McGuire the late Marquette coach once called the semi finals of the NCAA tournament the most exciting day in college basketball. His comment resonated with me then probably because that is precisely the way I felt. I can remember setting aside this day and making sure I had no plans for the five or six hours when the games would be played.

Now, I feel differently and I don't believe I am an aberration. The excitement of the tournament for me now is not the end of it, but the beginning. At this point each year the teams that have survived are from a group that everyone expected to survive. With the rare exception of George Mason University a few years ago, the final four matchups create enthusiasm mostly in Chapel Hill, Connecticut, East Lansing, and Philadelphia--sites of the survivors who had been among the pretournament elite.

The change in fandom significance of the final four is based on a number of factors. A major factor is the tournament exposure on television. When Al McGuire made his comment, few games from the preliminary rounds were broadcast. It was not until the late 1970s when then espn decided to televise all the tournament games. Now, CBS owns the rights to do so and, while not to the same extent that ESPN did, broadcasts nearly all of the games. (ESPN did not take dinner breaks and you could turn on the tube at 2 a.m. and see the replay of a game played between eastern kentucky and say northern iowa in case you missed a minute earlier when you were watching Miami of Ohio play against say Long Beach State).

By this time in 2009, fans could have watched 60 games so the last five are of relatively little import to someone outside of the regions where the contests are played. Sure there is interest, but it is not like it was in the 1970s. Someone who previously would never consider a movie and dinner on the night of the final four, may figure they will catch the highlights on espn when they return from the restaurant since they have already watched forty to sixty games in the tournament.

To be sure, televising games has done much more to enhance the visibility of the tournament than it has in eroding fandom. Seth Davis's book that, alas, is selling better than mine, makes the claim that what made march madness was the Bird-Johnson game in 1979. He is incorrect. That game was great (partly because Bird's Indiana State was such a sleeper and underdog). However, what made march madness was not any championship game, but the decision (and available technology) to telecast the first 48 games. The access to sports created fans and excited existing fans.

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