The NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee recently addressed concerns on two fronts in Phoenix, site of this season’s Final Four: The 68-team tournament format and last year’s record-low TV ratings during the Final Four.
Mark Hollis, the chair of the committee, said he does not anticipate changes to the tournament format anytime soon. On the more serious issue of poor television ratings during last year’s title game between North Carolina and Villanova, he is not fretting over that. Ratings for the entire tournament last season 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. The poor ratings belied the championship being one of the most dramatic in history, with Kris Jenkins hitting a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift Villanova over North Carolina.
A significant reason: The game was televised only on cable TV for the first time, on TBS. “You have to look at it over periods of time, not in one-year blips,” Hollis said of the ratings. “We’re in an extremely good position as far as interest.”
An important factor to ponder when analyzing fan interest is the dramatic rise in scoring over the last two seasons after the NCAA made two significant rules changes. The 30-second shot clock (as opposed to 35 seconds) and the directive to officials to make calls that reduce physicality and ease freedom of movement (allowing them to play) are making a dramatic impact on the game today from where it was two seasons ago.
The new rules have put some fire in the scoring production. Scoring at this time last season was at 73.90 points per game, up more than five points in the same time frame in 2014-15. As of Dec. 12 this season, teams are scoring slightly higher at 74.0 points per game. The most telling numbers are the comparisons of the top 10 scoring teams in Division I in the previous five years dating to 2011-12 to this season. The lowest average for the top 10 scoring teams in that time frame occurred in 2012-13 at only 78.6 points a game. The present average of the top-10 scoring teams is an astounding 92.9 points per game.
That’s a scoring margin of plus-14.3 points per game in a span of only four seasons. Eight teams are averaging at least 90 points a game, led by The Citadel at 105.4 points a game and UCLA at 97.5. The highest average in this decade is VMI’s 88.6 points per game in the 2009-10 season.
The high-scoring phenomenon with college basketball undoubtedly plays into Hollis saying last year’s low TV ratings in the NCAA title game was a one-year blip. In time, the popularity of the game will be more enhanced with the high-scoring trend. Viewers mostly love scoring rather than the stodgy, no-flow, half-court games that have scores of 56-50 or something like that.
Of course, limiting the title game to cable TV affects ratings. If the scoring trends continue at the same rate as of now, it will be interesting to see the ratings when TBS televises the championship game in 2018. CBS and Turner are rotating broadcast partners of the NCAA title game every other year for the next eight seasons per their contract with the NCAA. CBS and Turner sold all the ad space for the tournament well before it started, so they are not concerned about last year’s ratings.
Showcasing high-scoring teams with play more pleasing to the eye will only help all involved from the schools to the television networks. Only two years ago, Time magazine published an article titled, “College basketball has lost its soul.” It asked, “Why is the sport so troubled?” in relation to ratings down and scoring lower.
“A well-documented drop in scoring, which is near historically low levels, has been blamed for college basketball’s struggles,” the article written by Sean Gregory reads. “Ugly play has certainly contributed. Controlling coaches drain the fun and flow out of the game.
“Players are stronger—and more physical, which tends to hurt, more than help, offense. Technology has made scouting an opponent’s tendencies easier. When you know what your foe is about to do, he’s easier to defend.”
That same article would not be appropriate this season, especially after the NCAA addressed the flow of the game with the shot clock and force refs to allow more freedom of movement. The dramatic rise in scoring is proof that those rules needed to be addressed.
The NCAA will not regress and instead will continue pressing forward to make the game more watchable. College basketball may have lost its soul at one time with ugly results, but it’s showing a lot of spirit now.
Javier Morales has worked as a sports journalist for more than 25 years. He reported for The Arizona Daily Star for 13 years. He was the Star’s beat reporter for the Arizona men’s basketball program when the Wildcats won the national title in 1996-97. A 2010 Arizona Press Club award winner, Morales operates the blog site AllSportsTucson.com.