College basketball has a narrative problem. The games are great, but the sport is plagued by a lack of context. What are the implications? What do these games mean? What’s the bigger picture?We all love watching NCAA Tournament games. Every team is flawed, which means any team can win, which means every game is filled with a suspense and energy that you simply don’t get in other sports. There is nothing like watching a tourney game coming down to the wire — the outcome uncertain, nervous teenagers rising or shrinking from the pressure, and the possibility of seeing an iconic buzzer-beater live lingering hopefully in the back of our minds.
But once the game ends, so does the intrigue.
The relevance of those wild, unpredictable games we all watch is fleeting. It’s like riding a roller coaster — a brief burst of thrilling drama that abruptly ends, and is surrounded by boredom.
As we’ve seen with the NBA, rich narratives increase interest. The NBA Finals were more about the LeBron James saga than the games themselves. You can argue whether this is good or bad, but you can’t deny that the league has profited immensely because of it.
So why can’t college basketball develop the type of narratives that generate interest that goes beyond the games themselves?
1. The context of these games — the icky world of college sports — turns people off. In recent years the hypocrisies of big time college athletics have been placed in the spotlight. The corruption and exploitation that defines the institution of college sports are now in the foreground. How is the fan supposed to reconcile those unseemly elements and follow the sport with any sort of passion?
2. “One and done” players are killing the sport. Professional sports leagues develop narratives over years, not months. The LeBron James saga, for example, is so compelling because of its long arc.
But because the top college basketball players only stay for one season (two, at most), every college basketball season starts with a clean slate. We aren’t emotionally invested in any of these teams or any of these players because they just came into our lives a few weeks ago. And what’s the point of following them now if they’ll just be replaced by new teams and players next year?
The counterargument to the “one and done” theory is that there are a few impact players that have been around for a while this year. Both Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, and Perry Jones III were expected to go pro last year, but didn’t. At the time, commentators predicted that college hoops would experience a lift in “its relevance to the casual sports fan” as a result.
But despite having these big time players back, interest in the sport has stagnated.
Or has it?
3. Our assumption is wrong, and people actually do care about college hoops. It seems like college basketball is losing cultural relevance. The sports world has been dominated by NFL stories during so-called March Madness. Twitter isn’t exactly buzzing with Sweet 16 hype. And the number of players the average fan can name barely reaches double digits.
But these are ambiguous metrics. Just because it feels like this tournament passing by unnoticed and it seems like no one is talking about it doesn’t necessarily mean the level of public interest has decreased.
So how do we measure relevance?
One tool is ratings — the unreliable and probably illegitimate metric that is nonetheless our chosen way of quantifying things like “popularity.” This year, ratings hit a 18-year high during the tournament’s first week, which is a good sign for the sport.
Another tool is in-stadium attendance — something that means nothing but qualifies as “factual evidence” because it’s, like, a number. Attendance has declined four-straight years, and is expected to continue that trend this year.
So the two “statistical” measures of popularity yield mixed results about whether NCAA tourney interest is declining.
But numbers aside, there does appear to be a notable lack of organic buzz around the tournament this year. Where are the normal people talking about this tournament all week? And what, exactly, are they talking about?
Outside the game themselves, there’s not much else.
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