The National Collegiate Athletic Association's men's basketball tournament is the biggest, baddest, most spectacular playoff in American sports. Really, nothing else comes close: 64 teams from all over the nation—big powers, small powers, teams you never heard of before—all duking it out on the hardwoods, not in a popularity poll.
The tournament is the NCAA's cash cow and its principal means of holding together so many schools under its banner. And it's popular: This year's contest, which ends tonight in Atlanta, has averaged ratings that are nine percent higher than last year's, making it the most-watched tournament since 2005. In workplaces all over the country, people who haven't watched a college-basketball game all year find themselves filling out brackets predicting the winners.
And that's a problem: Most March Madness watchers haven't watched a college basketball game all year. As the tournament has grown in the public consciousness, fewer and fewer people are paying attention to the rest of the season—arguably diminishing the importance of college basketball itself.
No matter how you look at the numbers, regular-season college basketball is declining in popularity, at least for TV viewers. At the end of January, with the season at the midpoint, ratings for most nationally televised games were way down. According to Sports Media Watch on January 26, "Of the 316 games on CBS, ESPN 2, and ESPNU ... only 26 earned at least a 1.0 US rating." (A 1.0 rating roughly means one percent of the adults who live in a household with a television.) This did not include perhaps the highest-rated, regular-season game of the year, the December 19 Kentucky-Louisville matchup.