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March Madness: A Hit Everywhere Except the Stands

Mar 19, 2010 – 3:51 PM
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Jon Weinbach

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Sure, Thursday's first round NCAA Tournament games were incredibly entertaining and kept millions of viewers tuned to CBS's TV and online coverage.

But when it comes to actual attendance at the arenas ... they were duds.

Several venues, including the New Orleans Arena, the Ford Center in Oklahoma City and the HP Pavilion in San Jose, had huge swaths of empty seats, and at Kentucky's game against East Tennessee in New Orleans, the 17,000-seat arena was barely half-full.

"Every game we've played on the road has been a sellout," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "We've had no empty seats until today."

First and second-round attendance has long been hit-and-miss, largely because fans of teams that lose games played earlier in the day don't stay to watch later games, and because smaller schools don't have as many supporters who travel to far-flung locales.

But the very obvious attendance shortfalls add another layer to the debate over expanding the men's tournament. Next year, the NCAA has the right to opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion TV contract with CBS, and there's been much speculation that it will seek to add more teams -- perhaps 96, or even as many as 128 -- in an effort to create more content and extract more money from its TV deal.

Not surprisingly, many Division I coaches -- many of whom receive large bonuses for getting teams into the tournament -- have voiced support for expansion. They argue that college hoops should be more like college football, where more than half of all top-tier programs get to play in bowl games, while fewer than 35 percent of the 347 Div I college basketball teams participate in either the NCAA or NIT post-season tournaments.

Few fans are in favor of expansion, and not one industry executive I spoke with at this week's World Congress of Sports convention in Los Angeles was in favor of the idea.

"Scarcity of product is a good thing. By pushing out every game everywhere in every sport, a lot more games become irrelevant," says Randy Freer, president of Fox Sports Networks, who oversees the company's 19 regional sports channels. (To be fair, CBS Sports President Sean McManus did not attend the event.)

Putting aside the questions of how an expanded NCAA tournament would impact conference tournaments or the importance of the regular season, there's this obvious point: Will anyone show up for the additional games?

It's not like fans are flocking to second-tier Bowl games in places like Toronto, San Francisco or Seattle, and as this year's basketball attendance figures show, there's not out-sized demand for early-round "March Madness" games, no matter how compelling the game or how close the teams' campuses are to the arenas. Don't forget, the NCAA switched the tournament to a "pod" scheduling system a few years ago in an effort to cut schools' travel costs and make it easier for fans to watch local teams in nearby venues.

But the simple truth is that the NCAA doesn't really need to care about early-round attendance. Perhaps more than any other sports property in the world except the Super Bowl, the NCAA tournament's value is as a content asset -- not as a live event.

Unlike a pro sports franchise or even one of its member schools, the NCAA's financial health doesn't depend on luxury suite sales, concession numbers or parking revenue from a first-round game in Providence. The tournament's magic is in its ability to draw eyeballs on TV or via the Internet -- and based on the astounding number of people who logged onto CBSSports.com yesterday, the Tournament is clearly America's No. 1 online sports event. If expansion is inevitable, we may soon experience the ultimate bizarro moment in sports history: an important, sparsely-attended college basketball game that's watched by everyone -- but seen by no one.
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