Coming clean: Kentucky did move needle with huge ratings

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana:


Since it is Masters week, it seems like a good time to point out that I hardly am perfect when it comes to my predictions. Now most of you already know that, namely many of my former editors and my wife.

My most infamous blundered occurred when I covered the 1997 Masters in my first tournament as the Chicago Tribune’s new golf writer. It coincided with Tiger Woods, then 21, playing for the first time at Augusta National as a professional.

Trying to be bold, if not edgy, I did a column detailing all the reasons why Woods wouldn’t win the tournament. There was a learning curve at Augusta, I wrote, and he hadn’t even made the cut in the two times he played as an amateur. The Tribune then bannered my analysis on the front page of the sports section with the headline, “Why Tiger won’t tame Augusta.”

Well, as Maxwell Smart would say, “Missed it by that much.” Four days later, Woods not only tamed Augusta with a still-record score of 18-under, but he also won by 12 shots. In a mea culpa, I wrote the headline for my prediction column was the worst in the Tribune since “Dewey defeats Truman.”

To this day 18 years later, especially around the Masters, I still get reminded of that ill-fated column. The Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein even referenced it in aWoods story last week.

The Woods column seems especially relevant in light of my latest miss. On March 17, I wrote a column in this space questioning whether an undefeated Kentucky “would move the needle” with viewers during the NCAA tournament. I thought I sensed some Wildcat and John Calipari fatigue and that there was a certain buzz missing during their undefeated title bid.

In the spirit of coming clean, I need to pull another Maxwell Smart. Kentucky didn’t just move the needle; the Wildcats almost broke it.

Sports viewers joined Ashley Judd on Kentucky’s bandwagon, generating some of the biggest ratings for the tournament in two decades. An average of 22.6 million viewers tuned into TBS to see Wisconsin end the dream on Saturday night. That was the highest rating for a Final Four semifinal since 1996 (Kentucky-UMass) and up 39 percent from last year’s national semifinal.

Yep, “Missed it by that much” again.

Several factors came into play. I woefully underestimated how much sports fans love to watch a team or an athlete make a run at history. Kentucky’s attempt to become the first undefeated team since Indiana in 1976 was an enticing storyline.

The bigger appeal, though, might be the David vs. Goliath aspect. Americans always are drawn to the underdog, especially when the giant seems to be invincible. You almost could feel the country getting behind Notre Dame and then Wisconsin against the Kentucky Goliaths on successive Saturday nights. It all became must-watch TV.

There also was another factor involved, and it didn’t necessarily have to do with Kentucky. Perhaps the best thing to happen to coverage of the tournament was the CBS-Turner Sports deal in 2010. Instead of CBS being the exclusive outlet for coverage, causing viewers to miss certain match-ups, every game now is carried live on the various platforms.

The set-up empowers viewers to make their own choices, giving them the option to leave a blowout for a better game. As a result, the combination of quality and quantity sucks in more viewers, including non-traditional sports fans.

So while some of the strong ratings were due to Kentucky this year, a large portion continues to be the tournament itself. Year after year, it delivers a bounty of compelling games. There’s no such thing as a sure thing in the NCAAs, as the Wildcats know all too well after Saturday night.

Wisconsin prevented CBS from getting its dream Kentucky-Duke final on Monday. The game definitely would have delivered a blockbuster rating. Still, the Badgers are an appealing team in their own right, and Coach K going for title No. 5 still should make CBS very happy when the ratings come out on Tuesday.

As for me, I won’t make the same mistake when Calipari and Kentucky reload and make another run at history one of these years soon. However, I can’t say the same about Mr. Woods.

Given the sad state of his game, I think I am safe in predicting he won’t win the Masters this week. If Woods still has the yips with his short game, he wouldn’t even win a member-guest.

Now if Woods somehow pulls off a miracle and tames Augusta, well, it probably is time for me to find another line of work.

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