Why Were the National Championship TV Ratings So Low, and Can They be Improved?

In case you missed it, on Monday night Villanova proved they were the best team in the country and a worthy champion, cruising to a 79-62 victory over Michigan. It was the finale of what was a very entertaining tournament, and although the game was not close, it was impressive to see Villanova flex its might on basketball’s biggest stage.

You may think that it was silly to put “in case you missed it” in front of a college basketball article, but surprisingly, this year I think it was warranted. During Villanova’s coronation, the game drew only a 9.2 rating across the entirety of the game, peaking at 11.5, and finishing at a dud at 7.0. The total viewership was only 16 million. It is the lowest rated national championship game since ratings were recorded in 1975. For comparison’s sake, the College Football National Championship Game drew a 16.7, and the Elite Eight game between Duke and Kansas also drew a 9.2.

So what happened? How did college basketball’s biggest night put up numbers that will most likely not make it in the Top 50 of most viewed broadcasts? There are many factors, but I believe there are three obvious ones, one of which can be easily fixed.

The first is pretty obvious: the game wasn’t very good. No one really wants to stick around and watch a blowout, even if one team is playing really well. But of the three, I believe this one is the reason most influenced by outside circumstances. As sporting events like the Super Bowl and the College Football Playoff have shown, people are willing to sit through blowouts. To make that easier, the other two reasons have to be addressed.

The second reason is the fact the game was on cable instead of network TV. This is due to the TV deal the NCAA has with CBS and Turner Sports. As awesome as it is that every college basketball game is now featured on an individual channel, the price we pay for that (aside from having to listen to Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith during the tournament) is that starting in 2016, every other year the Final Four has to be broadcast on a Turner channel, TBS. This deal is in place until 2032, so unless Turner makes TBS more widely accessible during the tournament, we will be searching for TBS or a place to stream every other year up until the year Coach K’s hair finally turns gray, Jim Boeheim calls it quits, and the NCAA finally figures out what’s a block and a charge (I’m kidding, of course. They’re never going to get the block/charge call right).

The third reason is the start time of the game. Of the three reasons I think this is the easiest to fix. The games starts at 9:20 PM EDT, which is really, really late. Most important sports games start between 6:30 and 8:30 PM, with only the NBA Finals games starting later, around 9. The NCAA Championship’s starting time guarantees the game will end no earlier than 11:30, and for those such as myself that like to wait for One Shining Moment, not turning off the TV until 12:15 AM.

The late time slot started from 1973. The Final Four was originally played on Thursday and Saturday. However, a little known prime-time show called Monday Night Football had proved there was a market on Monday nights. As a result, the NCAA switched its game slots, being able to capture two large audiences instead of one. The problem? Monday Night Football is now no longer nearly as popular as it was then, and I believe the NCAA should take notice of that. Two possible solutions are to either move the game up to 7 PM, similar to the Super Bowl, or to move the game onto Sunday Night, being able to draw a larger audience there. Since it is unknown whether a Friday night time slot would be good for the semi-final games, giving the national championship game an earlier time slot would probably be the safest bet.

In spite of all of the things I said above, I still was able to watch the entire game, and One Shining Moment after. And I did so because I love college basketball immensely. But part of the appeal of the NCAA Tournament is how much fun it is for even the most casual of fans. By restricting its availability, the NCAA and CBS/Turner have cut themselves off from one of its most profitable audiences. Fortunately, they have twelve months until the next Final Four to figure things out and give us a better product. Congratulations to Villanova for winning the national championship and I already can’t wait for the start of next season!

All TV stats came from this link: http://www.sportsmediawatch.com/2018/04/ncaa-national-championship-ratings-villanova-michigan/

Mark Stouffer
Senior at Purdue studying Statistics. Also a life long Duke fan.