Will Kentucky ‘move the needle’ with high ratings for NCAA Tournament?

My latest for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana.


TV viewers love to see perfection in sports. It is why the ratings soared when Michael Jordan was flying to titles in Chicago. Fans tuned in to watch the Derek Jeter Yankees dominate baseball in the late ‘90s. Michael Phelps made NBC very happy at several Olympics.

Back when Tiger Woods was Tiger Woods (doesn’t that sound like ancient history?), he got non-traditional golf viewers to watch him on his inevitable march to Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors. Again, it still is hard to believe that his run might end at 14 majors with the last one coming at age 32.

In the TV business, all the various forms of perfection from athletes and teams produce the phenomenon of “moving the needle.” Call it ratings gold.

Perfection now looms again on the eve of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Kentucky comes in with a perfect 34-0 record. The Wildcats are trying to become the first team to run the table since Bobby Knight’s Indiana crew went 32-0 in 1975-76. To put that in perspective, if Kentucky does win out, and another 39 years passes before another team goes perfect again, it will be 2054. By then, we’ll all have some sort of computer chip in our brains to watch the games.

Normally, Kentucky’s run would be a great story. But will they be ratings gold for CBS and Turner?

It hardly appears to be a slam dunk. The buzz meter doesn’t seem to be as high as it should be.

Some factors are at play here:

*There’s little question that the one-and-done trend is a huge drawback for college basketball. For the big stars, college basketball is just a one-year pit stop to the NBA. The whole thing is a joke.

The main problem from a fan’s perspective is the window is so short to become vested in a particular team. One of the things that stood out in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary, “I Hate Christian Laettner,” is that the core of those great Duke teams was together for several years. Laettner and Bobby Hurley were around for four Final Fours; Grant Hill for three. Fans got to know them and that team.

That would never happen today. Kentucky soon will wave bye-bye to freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, the same way it did when Anthony Davis did the one-and-done thing after leading the Wildcats to the 2012 title.

As a result, college basketball fans don’t really know this Kentucky team. If they aren’t as engaged, it could make some fans less likely to tune in.

* I was in the car listening to the Kentucky-Auburn game on ESPN Radio Saturday. With Kentucky winning big, analyst Will Perdue noted that even the Wildcat crowd was subdued. They were bored by another blowout.

Is it possible to be too good? Kentucky is beating opponents by an average of 21 points per game this year. If the Wildcats do a similar steamroll through the tournament, it won’t help CBS and Turner. Routs never are good for ratings.

*There is a Facebook page with this heading: “University of Kentucky Basketball: Making people jealous since 1903.”

Yeah, I can’t say I’m looking forward to another March of Ashley Judd and all those other smug flag-waving Kentucky fans. Last year drove me over the top. Even when the Wildcats supposedly have an off-year, they still get to the final game as a No. 8 seed. At least, they didn’t win.

It’s also hard to warm up to John Calipari basically assembling a future NBA All-Star team in Lexington. Not that I wouldn’t mind a coach at my school, Illinois, doing that once in my lifetime.

Jealous? Sure, I am. I also think I’m not alone in being less than enthused at the prospect of Kentucky winning another national title.

*You can be sure CBS and Turner will be hyping Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection. CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus is bullish on the Wildcats.

“As long as we can ride Kentucky’s coattails, we will.” McManus told Richard Deitsch at SI.com.

For now, it is essentially a one-team tournament. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sportswrites: “There are 67 underdogs in this tournament, trying to take down one big dog. Paradoxically, the big dog is a Cat.”

Indeed, if there’s one thing viewers like as much as perfection, it’s David trying to take down Goliath. There could be as many as six games in which David gets its shot against Kentucky.

History does show there’s no such thing as a sure thing in the NCAA tournament. In 1992, UNLV came into the tournament undefeated. Jerry Tarkanian’s team seemed to be a lock to repeat as national champions. However, the Runnin’ Rebels were cut down by Duke and Laettner in the national semis.

One way or another history will be made in the next three weeks. Either Kentucky will end the 39-year drought of perfection or the Wildcats will fall in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history.

The ratings then will tell just how much the viewers cared about Kentucky.


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