An expected ratings dip at the 2023 men’s Final Four seems to be a leading narrative this week. But why? Let’s just enjoy the basketball.
The NCAA technically isn’t a business — under the law, it’s a non-profit — but for not-a-business, there are certainly a lot of business-y elements. The association’s massive media rights contract with CBS/Turner to televise its Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is about as business-y as it gets.
And the NCAA makes over a billion dollars a year off of it — easily its biggest annual money-maker.
With that in mind, it’s reasonable to overreact to TV ratings (even preemptively) for one round in one year of one tournament. That’s why it’s not surprising to witness the #narrative that’s circulating this week about the 2023 men’s Final Four featuring UConn, Miami, San Diego State, and Florida Atlantic.
With only one traditional men’s basketball powerhouse out of the four — plus two teams from outside the major conferences — skeptics seem to expect a ratings disaster this weekend. After all, casual fans would rather watch Kansas or Duke or Kentucky than the Aztecs and Owls.
Maybe they’re right. Saturday night’s semifinal numbers may reflect only the true diehards, fans of the four teams, and a handful of gambling sickos, leading to much lower ratings than the NCAA has come to expect in the Final Four.
My only question is: Other than a handful of CBS PR folks, who cares?
It is so painfully obvious that this year’s Final Four is an aberration compared to the usual semifinal field that no one in their right mind would think low ratings this weekend is indicative of anything to come. We are only a year removed from a Final Four that featured Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Villanova. UCLA, Gonzaga, and Baylor were in the Final Four the year before that. Some combination of those seven schools will likely be in the Final Four next year or the year after, no matter what happens this weekend.
The NCAA’s media deal with CBS and Turner is up in 2032, so this isn’t a so-called “contract year” or close to it. There’s no need for the NCAA to fear losing out on a few bucks when it gets back to the negotiating table because of potentially lower numbers this weekend. This also probably won’t affect how much Turner makes next year in ad revenue — or at least, not much.
All told, there are plenty of bigger factors to consider as Turner tries to go for three straight years of over a billion dollars made via advertising. To name a few:
- The state of the economy at the time: Do ad partners have money to shell out?
- The current crop of top teams: Are the most likely 2024 Final Four teams from programs that will draw eyeballs? The answer is almost always yes; 2023 is more likely to be the exception that proves the rule.
- The talent in the sport: Are there individual players fans will want to tune in to watch regardless of which program they’re with? In this NIL era of ours that spurs more players to return to college, it’s likely. Throw in the possibility that a Bronny James might play in March Madness next year and the draw becomes that much stronger.
March Madness will be fine — it always has been and always will be, at least under its current structure. Zoom out a bit and, down the road, the 2023 Final Four may have ended up being a net positive for the sport.
Last year, it was the bluebloods. This year, it’s the mid-majors and the unexpecteds. It all adds to the unpredictability of the greatest postseason tournament in the world. There are so many more Final Four possibilities than even 15 years ago when a 2006 George Mason — led by current Miami coach Jim Larrañaga, no less — was seen as a historic oddity. There’s no 11-seed in this year’s Final Four, but we do have a 9, 6, and 5: three seed lines that have never won the whole thing.
Next year? Maybe it’ll be all bluebloods again. Maybe we’ll get a quartet of upstart surprises. More likely, we’ll see a combination of the two with plenty of intrigue to go around. The ratings will be there, too, even if this year ends up being an anomaly.
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