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.
Ratings for the second half of the season picked up a bit, largely because of some high -profile matchups, mostly from Big Ten powers such as Michigan-Indiana (who played each other twice) and Indiana-Michigan State. But overall, of the 678 televised games, 606 had a less than 1.0 rating. Again, Sports Media Watch: "That includes 376 games that had between a 0.1 and 0.4 and an incredible 127 games that had 0.0."
As for ticket buyers, the returns aren't in for this season, but in recent years, ticket sales at some schools have dropped off so sharply—a Chronicle of Higher Education analysis in March 2012, found that nearly one in five programs had attendance drops of 20 percent or more over the previous four seasons—that many are reluctant to release the figures. Noting the lack of interest in Big East basketball last fall, former conference commissioner Mike Tranghese told reporters, "For the most part, you can go through November and December, and people who aren't die-hard enthusiasts aren't even aware that college basketball is taking place."
There are nearly as many theories about why ratings and ticket sales are declining as there are commentators. The expansion of NBA teams to areas that were once bastions of college roundball, the continuing recession and lack of disposable income for college students, and increased competition from other professional sports during the college season are likely factors.
But former college All-American and NBA All-Pro Charles Barkley laid the blame directly on the NCAA tournament at the beginning of this year's March Madness: "A lot of fans just have the feeling that 'Who cares what happens during the regular season when all that matters is what happens in the tournament?' It's bad for a game that used to be built on rivalries that went back decades, that were important to fans whether or not they had anything to do with deciding the national championship. It's like the season doesn't matter anymore except for deciding who gets what seed."
I think Barkley's onto something there. But even if we could know for sure that March Madness was draining viewership away from the rest of the season, it's unlikely that college basketball's powers that be would do much about it. The tournament accounts for more than 90 percent of the NCAA's revenue, and individual colleges benefit from it financially as well.
Enormous national TV contracts allow the NCAA to dole out a substantial amount of cash to every participant in the tournament and even scores of others that didn't make the cut. The payout system is complex, but according to Winthrop Research Services, the Big Ten conference will be paid in "Units" that over the next six years equal around $38 million, while the smallest (or the least successful in the national tournament) league, the Western Athletic Conference, will receive between $2-3 million.
As for individual teams, Winthrop projects that the University of Kansas will receive over the next six years between $18 and $23 million; the check to Louisville, this year's favorite to win it all in tonight's championship game against Michigan, clocks in at an estimated $18 million and change.
The current state of affairs was solidified when the NCAA bought out the only remaining competition to March Madness, the National Invitational Tournament. The NIT was born a year earlier than the NCAA, in 1930, and for decades held a significant advantage over the younger tourney: The NIT could offer schools from all over the country a trip to New York and exposure from the nation's media center.
The NIT was weakened, though, by the 1951 betting scandal in which numerous players were found to have take money for shaving points or even, in a few examples, having thrown games altogether. The scandal allowed the NCAA—which vowed to "clean up" college basketball, a boast it has never lived up to—to more or less pull even in stature with the NIT. Until the 1980s, the two organizations constantly quarreled, with the NCAA pressuring its conference winners to appear only in their tournament.
In 1985, though, the NCAA came into the dominant position by raising the number of participant schools to 64 and corralling enough money in the national TV contracts to pay everyone. That was the birth of "bracketology" as we know it today.
In 2005 the NCAA ended the rivalry by purchasing the rights to the NIT for more than $56 million, thus ensuring an additional 32 colleges and their conferences a fat paycheck every spring. So, yes, the NCAA has done well by its member schools. Whether it has done well by the game is less clear.