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College Basketball's Tipping Point

Jan 12, 2010 – 3:27 PM
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Clay Travis

Clay Travis %BloggerTitle%

Empty college basketball arena
The American sports fan doesn't pay attention to college basketball outside of a stretch in March and the first week in April. Sure, there are exceptions, the states of North Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana for instance, but outside of that trio, how many big sports fans are really well-versed in this year's crop of title contenders?

College basketball's difficult sporting reality really hit me in the wake of this past weekend when two events occurred. First, Tennessee upset undefeated, No. 1 Kansas and it took SportsCenter 40 minutes to get to the highlights and second, an undefeated Kentucky opened its conference season against Georgia, and many Wildcat fans chose to watch the Cincinnati Bengals play the New York Jets, instead.

Consider this my own private tipping point. When Wildcat fans choose NFL football over college basketball, there has to be something larger at issue here, right? What has happened to relegate college basketball to the interest backburner? And is there any reason to suggest that college basketball will ever be something more than a six-week national obsession?

Now, as a preliminary, I'm aware that college basketball has long been a niche sport. As my esteemed editor points out, the Indiana State- Michigan State Larry Bird, Magic Johnson game actually aired on television via tape delay back in 1979, the year I was born. In the time since that game, college basketball exploded on the national scene aided, in no small measure, by the rise of cable television.

College basketball games were cheap, abundant, and ripe for the cable content plucking. And, as a huge basketball fan, I reveled in it. All of it. By the time I went to college on the East Coast, I was following college basketball avidly from the A-10 to the Big Ten to the Pac-10 and everything in between. Something happened to me after I left college that I think happened to a lot of college basketball fans, other sports began to encroach on much of the college basketball season and I often found myself looking up, like now, in mid-January with the season halfway over and not much to show for it.

Sure, I still followed my favorite team, but my knowledge of the rest of college basketball was remarkably spare. And I would inevitably find myself studying box scores as tourney time came closer. Yeah, with the growth of college basketball, we've all become crazy about it for one month, but has the March Madness wave overrun the college basketball regular season? Has college basketball peaked as a national sport?

I don't know for sure, but in the last 10 years, something has stalled, a game that appeared poised to grow from a six-week obsession into a bonafide season has stalled.

Why?

I think there are 10 reasons, some of which have to do with college basketball and some of which have to do with what the rest of the sports universe has done to stealthily march on the college basketball game.

1. The Rise of March Madness Eclipses Everything Else

Don't believe me?

Why else would the NCAA be looking at taking the tournament to 96 teams? Because instead of attempting to draw more attention to the regular season, college basketball wants to emphasize its crown jewel, the tournament that everyone loves.

Has the growth of the NCAA tournament into a bonafide leviathan of the sports landscape actually weakened the overall product as a whole?

I think so.

2. The NFL Playoffs Have Become Even More of a National Event

The Super Bowl is a national event ... but so are the playoffs ... even if your team isn't playing.

After all, there are only 11 NFL playoff games. Each year, amazingly, the ratings become higher for these games. That's because the NFL has become our national pastime. And along the way, the NFL playoffs have eclipsed the entire month of January and the first week of February from the sports calendar for college basketball.

Like I said, this became clear to me, that the NFL playoffs were stealing away attention from college basketball, when I talked to some friends who are Kentucky basketball fans this weekend.

Kentucky basketball fans are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If they're turning their attention away from an undefeated team beginning conference play to watch the NFL playoffs, well, you can bet the vast majority of casual fans are turning away as well.

In fact, if you want to make the NCAA really nervous -- keep in mind that the NCAA tournament is where all of the NCAA's revenue comes from -- think about what the NFL's season expansion from 16 to 18 games would mean for college basketball. Especially if, instead of kicking off play in August, the NFL pushed their playoff games further into February.

A Super Bowl on February 21 or thereabouts? Or how about this, a Super Bowl on the Sunday before Presidents' Day weekend every year so the next Monday is a national holiday?

It could happen.

And you thought your bracket had weak picks now? Wait until the Super Bowl is just three weeks away from the NCAA tournament.

3. College Basketball's Disjointed Schedule

I've wondered this for a long time, but isn't the college basketball season set up to fail? Why has it ever made sense to begin college basketball just in time for Thanksgiving, then have to take a prolonged break for finals, cut into Christmas season and then New Year's, and play in arenas without students on campus for the first half of the season?

For all the talk about protecting student athletes, college basketball players get screwed more than any athletes on campus with the way their season is structured.

Why not start the college basketball season later, say right after Christmas for actual games, and extend college basketball season into the first week of May?

Yeah, you lose the alliterative flow of March Madness, but you probably grow the audience for your sport by lessening the competition with football. Plus, you can always roll with May Madness instead, and you still have April to dominate in addition to March. Plus, your students can attend almost every game.

More importantly, you turn basketball into a sport firmly tethered to one semester.

Or is that too logical?

4. There Are Too Many Division I Teams

There are 347 Division I basketball teams.

347!

Just five years ago, in 2004, there were 326.

Yep, somehow we've added 21 more teams in the past five years.

Many of these teams are awful.

Most of the teams without a geographic tip-off -- city or state in the name -- you can't place in the correct state.

Don't believe me?

Longwood basketballWhere is Longwood?

Stop giggling.

Quinnipiac?

Gardner-Webb?

Campbell?

Yet games between these teams we can't place in the correct state and perennial contenders make up half of the college basketball season. In fact, lots of attention goes to college football teams scheduling cupcake opponents, but the vast majority of the college football season, at least two-thirds, is made up of conference games.

Almost half of all college basketball games are non-conference contests that mean almost nothing.

Since the cost of fielding a Division I basketball team is comparatively small, many schools want to get into the top echelon of competition; I don't blame them. But at some point the numbers have to be curtailed.

The number 347 works as an area code, not for Division I teams.

And it won't end there.

If this keeps up, by 2020 we'll have 400.

Is there any other division in any sport with this many teams ostensibly competing for a championship? By comparison, college football has 119.

5. The College Football Bowl Season Never Ends

This year, the nation's 34 bowl games began on Dec. 19 and ended on Jan. 7. Next year's BCS title game is set for Jan. 10.

It used to be that college basketball could cede the college sports fan's attention to Jan. 1 and a couple of days bordering that date and then reclaim that attention immediately thereafter.

Now there is always a college football bowl game on television every day of the week.

And more are coming.

Who is the biggest loser?

College basketball.

6. The Rise of the NFL Draft

True or false? If you live in an NFL city, more time will be spent on the NFL Draft prospects for that NFL team than on actual college basketball games.

It's getting closer and closer to being true.

Especially with the rise of the NFL draft, the combine, the Senior Bowl and associated events.

Who loses out more than just about anyone by this factor? Basketball in general, college basketball in particular.

Why?

At least the NBA has the playoffs to recover.

7. College Football Recruiting Has Become More Important Than College Basketball Games

National signing day is the first week in February. If college football really wanted to get smart, it would bump signing day back about 10 days -- after the Super Bowl.

Why?

Because then it would dominate the news cycle and national signing day would become what it already has become in many parts of the South, a bonafide holiday for college sports fans.

With the rise of the Internet, college football has become a year-round sport. Signing day, with its set date, large classes, and eternal suspense has begun to encroach on the attention paid to college basketball.

Especially because basketball doesn't have a similar signing day -- there are two signing periods for basketball, early and late -- so the attention is deflected.

Even given the disparity in recruiting class sizes -- football teams will sign at least five times as many players as basketball will -- the amount of attention paid to college football recruits is much greater than that paid to basketball recruits. Given that a really solid basketball player can make an awful lot more difference for a team, this doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's an undisputed fact, college football recruiting is cutting into the lifeblood of college basketball attention.

This is one area that college basketball could improve upon, by picking a single signing day and publicizing the hell out of it.

8. Pre-Conference Basketball Tournaments Have Lost Their Appeal

Remember when Maui represented the perfect preview for March, a nice introduction into the world of college basketball that featured match-ups between top teams? Now there are tons of Mauis, tournaments all over the country, to which most people don't pay attention.

Yep, all of these tournaments dilute the attention from what made a place like Maui special. Again, it makes sense that other locations would want to get in on Maui's action, but the result is a mish mash of events that dilute the attention.

9. The NBA Appeal Has Also Dimmed in America; Has Basketball Lost Its Swagger?

And that, my friends, is a question that's really interesting.

After all, does anyone pay attention to the NBA regular season either?

Ultimately, a strong college game is a solid barometer for the NBA. A weak college game? Well, at least the NBA translates well globally.

College basketball, on the other hand, is never going to have an audience anywhere but here.

10. One and Done Doesn't Make Sense For College

Why do fans connect more with college football players despite the fact that there are more of them, they wear helmets so we don't even know what the majority of them look like, and the vast majority of them will never play in the NFL? Because they have to stay and play for our teams for a minimum of three seasons. In basketball, all you need to do to represent a university is show up and pass a couple of classes for the fall semester.

Once spring arrives, just hang out around the classroom; you don't have to be there for the finals.

How much of an educational sham is this?

Personally I disagree with the college football system, I think you should be able to earn a living as a pro athlete at any age, certainly by the time you're and adult and 18. But there's no denying that college football's rule is infinitely superior to college basketball's one-and-done schematic.

Why?

Because even if your team has a great player, you don't come to feel connected to that player as a fan when he's only there for one season. What's more important than being great? Being around long enough for the fan base to get to know you.

Stay just one year and you view him as what he is, a hired gun.

If college basketball really wants to get serious about retaking their game, then they'd push for no limit to the right of a teenager to play in the NBA. But, at the same time, insist that if you did sign to play college basketball, you'd commit to three years of schooling.

As is, college basketball is just doing the NBA's development work, creating stars for professional basketball with no real connection to the college game.

In the end, college basketball was a tremendous beneficiary of the cable explosion of the 1980s and 1990s. For fans like you and I, the question is, has college basketball's popularity peaked?

And if so, what can the sport do to reclaim the sporting public's attention?

Because right now, as seems the case, is the expansion of the NCAA tournament the only attention grabbing maneuver that college basketball has left?

Time will tell.

In the meantime, an awful lot of sports fans will be waiting for March.

Clay Travis is the author of three books. His latest, "On Rocky Top: A Front Row Seat to The End of an Era" chronicles the 2008 Tennessee football season and is on sale now and makes a great stocking stuffer. You have a stocking for Martin Luther King Day, right?
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