Duke’s victory over Wisconsin in Monday’s national championship game brings down the curtains on one of the most memorable NCAA tournaments in recent memory–a tournament with compelling storylines, riveting matchups, and of course, long-discarded brackets.
There was one thing in particular that stood out to me during this edition of March Madness. The tournament has a reputation of occasionally having unexpected teams make deep runs into the later rounds, and the single-elimination nature of the tournament makes it incredibly appealing to both hardcore and casual fans, even if they haven’t followed a minute of college basketball prior to the month of March.
But this year, while the tournament began with some amazing underdog victories (accompanied by a celebratory fall from a stool), no team that anyone would consider a “Cinderella” made it as far as the sweet 16. Three of the Final Four teams (Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin) were 1-seeds, and underachieving and thus 7th-seeded Michigan State rounded out a national semifinal round full of blue-bloods and alpha dogs. In fact, underachieving traditional power UCLA, an 11-seed whose selection to the tournament raised a bit of controversy, was the lowest seed to reach the Sweet 16.
Despite the lack of a Cinderella in this year’s tournament, interest in the tournament did not wane as the tournament progressed. As a matter of fact, this was the most-watched tournament since 1993, having shattered cable records for televised college basketball and even surpassing years when the tournament was only available on CBS. A lot of the audience can likely be attributed to Kentucky’s quest for the first undefeated season since 1975-76. Even after Kentucky’s elimination from the tournament, the Wisconsin-Duke national championship game was the most-watched title game since 1997. This is particularly notable given the decline in the popularity of college basketball since the 1990s. Of course, these ratings don’t even account for the tens of millions of viewers watching via the March Madness Live streaming app. One also has to wonder what ratings in recent years would look like if traditional ways of measuring TV viewership were combined with current times, where more people watch streamed content on computers, smartphones, and tablets than ever before.
The problem with the Cinderella story is that, nine times out of ten, when they’ve already captured the attention of the nation, they’ll crash and burn when they meet one of the alpha dogs. For the program itself, it’s good that they have the attention of the country, as well as that of recruits, showing them that they can win games on the big stage. Oftentimes, that’s how mid-major powers like Gonzaga, VCU and Wichita State build themselves. But for the viewer, if the game starts to get lopsided, they’ll tune out. That risk is somewhat lessened when there are two powerhouses duking it out on the biggest of stages.
George Mason captured America’s attention in March of 2006, knocking off North Carolina and Connecticut, the two most recent national champions at the time (although both teams no longer had the key players that led them to those championships), en route to being the lowest seed to ever make the Final Four. In the national semifinal against Florida, the Patriots held tough in the first half, but the Gators pulled away in the second half and went on to win. With no other compelling storyline left in the tournament, viewers largely tuned out of the second game that night, which managed to get worse ratings than the first game, the only time for that to happen in the past decade.
There could be various theories as to why college basketball isn’t as popular as it once was in the 1980s and 90s, including fans’ familiarity with the players, or lack thereof, with the best players looking to turn pro as soon as possible. Just a simple Google search can tell you what many think of the one-and-done rule. But if the viewership of this tournament says anything, it’s that people still want to see the best of the best square off against each other, no matter how long–or short–the players themselves stay in college.