HOUSTON — At some point Sunday, the numbers will start coming in to show how many Americans watched the men’s Final Four.
They probably won’t be great. Newsflash: A Final Four with Florida Atlantic, San Diego State, Miami and UConn, four coaches who aren’t household names and no projected first-round NBA draft picks is unlikely to capture the imagination of the casual basketball fan.
“If you’re expecting all four No. 1 seeds to be at the Final Four every year, it doesn’t work that way,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said. “There’s too much parity in college basketball.”
Said another way: Save your complaints. This is what college basketball is. Embrace it or go watch something else.
If this Final Four isn’t your cup of tea, the only people who are going to miss you are CBS executives. And even then, a weird, one-off Final Four without a blueblood is not going to cause the collapse of network television or decrease the value of the NCAA men’s tournament.
Whether the TV ratings end up being better than expected or the lowest in the modern era, there is no reason whatsoever for college basketball fans to care.
“I love to see it because it’s an opportunity for those outside the national spotlight to be on the big stage and show what they can do,” Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May said. “I think it’s great for the game to have new faces, new people on the scene. I think it’s really cool.”
The uniqueness of college basketball is that one year, you get a Final Four with Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Villanova — a group of teams that owns a combined 18 NCAA tournament titles — and the next you get three programs making the semifinals for the first time.
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As much as upsets and Cinderella stories in the early rounds make the tournament popular, it’s no secret that the ideal Final Four for television ratings would include at least two or three bluebloods every year. Kentucky and UCLA draw more eyeballs than FAU and San Diego State, and that’s never going to change.
But guess what? CBS executives don’t get to choose.
This is a sport, and the magic of true competition is that we don’t have the answers ahead of time.
Only John Calipari could have made Kentucky a better team than Miami, but he didn’t.
Nothing could have prevented UCLA from losing two of their key players to injury late in the season, so they’re out.
Who knows what might have happened with Kansas if Bill Self didn’t need a heart procedure the week before the NCAA tournament, but life intervened and he couldn’t coach.
North Carolina was supposed to be back in position to win a national title based on who they brought back from last year’s runner-up team, but they never got their act together.
So this is what we have.
“It’s certainly an unconventional group of teams,” Larrañaga said.
And they earned every bit of it.
So why, exactly, does that mean doom and gloom for college basketball?
Look, the sport has some real problems. Some of them could be addressed through rule tweaks.
But at the end of the day, college basketball does not have the same status in the sports and cultural landscape as it did in the 1980s or 1990s. The regular season is mostly for the hard-cores, and there just aren’t as many of those paying attention in December, January and February as there used to be.
Those are difficult things to fix.
But there is no way to change the nature of the NCAA tournament without making it worse. You get 68 teams across a wide spectrum of conferences, and with all the variables that now go into roster-building from name, image and likeness to the transfer portal, the margins between them are relatively small.
It was apparent this entire season there were no truly dominant teams and that a lot of the blueblood programs were going through various stages of transition.
Guess what? All the parity made the first round of the tournament the most-watched ever. That was great for CBS and Turner, but did it really impact your life in any way?
The same will be true when the ratings are significantly down for this Final Four. Unless you are an employee of CBS or a corporation that bought ad space during the games, this kind of year-to-year fluctuation is not your problem.
Heck, even the NCAA doesn’t have much on the line here. They have locked themselves into a 16-year television deal that doesn’t come up for renewal until 2032. Even now, the decision to extend so far into the future is considered one of the biggest blunders of former NCAA president Mark Emmert’s tenure, because it undervalues one of the most important television properties in all of sports.
For all the moaning and complaining about ratings, you better believe that the first opportunity the NCAA has to negotiate a new contract, networks will be lining up to pay more than what it’s worth now.
So, yes, TV ratings are probably going to suffer with this group of non-traditional teams in the Final Four. If that’s the price for the drama and unpredictability fans have been given the last two weeks, you’d pay it every time.