March Madness Could Turn to March Sadness at CBS
Throughout the San Diego-Dallas NFL telecast Sunday, CBS ran promos of great moments in NCAA men's basketball tournament history to remind viewers of the network's historic 28-year connection to March Madness.
That link, one of the longest continuous ties between a network and a property, could be severed after this year's tournament, if the NCAA exercises its right to opt out of its mammoth 11-year, $6 billion deal with CBS eight years in, as has been hinted in recent printed reports.
That eight-year mark just happens to coincide with the conclusion of the 2009-2010 season. If the NCAA walks out on the contract, it could set the stage not only for the possible expansion of the field from 65 to 80 or 96 teams, but for one of the biggest bidding wars in sports television history, not to mention a move of the telecast from broadcast to cable.
The latter development may not mean much to viewers, who largely don't draw distinctions between who airs what. But a relocation of the NCAA tournament -- arguably the second biggest event on the American sports calendar after the Super Bowl -- from over the air could hasten the long, slow demise of the network sports division as we've known it for decades.
Think about it: ABC Sports, known for decades as the home of the Olympics, "Monday Night Football" and "Wide World of Sports," exists now only in the ledgers of Walt Disney Co. bookkeepers, having been swallowed whole by ESPN.
Yes, CBS, Fox and NBC still operate fully functioning broadcast sports divisions, but none of them carry the complete package of events they did even five years ago.
To wit, only the NCAA Tournament (other than the play-in game between the 64th and 65th teams) and the NFL playoffs among the major postseason events currently air exclusively on over-the-air television, and who's to say that if the NFL expands the playoff field from 12 to 14 or 16 teams that a postseason round wouldn't go to a cable partner, say ESPN or its own NFL Network?
Even as ratings for the NCAA Tournament have slipped in recent years, the property is still quite valuable, if nothing else, than as a way to bring male viewers -- the most elusive in the television viewing universe -- into the fold. The tournament also provides CBS a way to introduce its wares for the May ratings sweeps to a captive audience.
Oddly enough, a widening of the NCAA Tournament field could provide the vehicle through which March Madness leaves CBS.
Adding 15 or 31 teams to the field would add a fourth weekend to the tournament, a weekend that would involve teams at the bottom of the draw and with limited national appeal.
That's hardly a prime selling point for CBS officials to convince jittery network affiliates about the wisdom of bagging an episode of "CSI" or "The Mentalist" -- even a rerun -- for games pitting schools that no one has heard of.
Of course, CBS now has its own college sports channel to place potential early round games, but it doesn't have nearly the coverage of ESPN, which has made its desire to get any part of the tournament known in no uncertain terms.
A CBS Sports spokeswoman declined comment, while an NCAA spokeswoman would not answer whether CBS would have a right to match any offer from another network. It is believed, however, that CBS would have the right to negotiate first with the NCAA, if the opt-out is invoked.
ESPN, which airs 23 NCAA championships, including all 63 games of the women's basketball tournament, has openly lobbied for a larger field, even turning an episode of "Outside the Lines" into a primer on how the tournament could be expanded a few years back.
The Worldwide Leader will have all the pieces of the Bowl Championship Series next year. Adding the basketball tournament could make ESPN the unquestioned home of college championships, as well as take another brick out of the impregnable wall that used to be broadcast network sports television.
Of course that would also unleash Dick Vitale on the Final Four. Govern yourselves accordingly.