Hoops Boom: NCAA Ratings Soar Even As Talent Bolts As college basketball dives into the Sweet 16, March Madness has never been so crazy — or so rich. Despite a surge in players leaving for the NBA, the tournament is setting ratings and money records.
NPR logo Hoops Boom: NCAA Ratings Soar Even As Talent Bolts

Hoops Boom: NCAA Ratings Soar Even As Talent Bolts

Matt Howard (center) has hit game-winning shots in each of Butler's two NCAA tournament games. Here, he celebrates with Khyle Marshall (left) and Shawn Vanzant after the Bulldogs upset Pittsburgh, 71-70, last weekend to reach the Sweet 16. Butler plays Wisconsin on Thursday. Alex Brandon/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Alex Brandon/AP

Matt Howard (center) has hit game-winning shots in each of Butler's two NCAA tournament games. Here, he celebrates with Khyle Marshall (left) and Shawn Vanzant after the Bulldogs upset Pittsburgh, 71-70, last weekend to reach the Sweet 16. Butler plays Wisconsin on Thursday.

Alex Brandon/AP

The NCAA men's basketball tournament tips off its Sweet 16 round Thursday, and the leading MVP candidate so far appears to be March Madness itself.

The hugely popular hoops fest is proving this year that it had room to get even bigger. Four additional teams. Every game broadcast on television, in full and for free. Advertising and ratings, on TV and online, soaring. And celebrity TV announcers from pro basketball providing some of the play-by-play.

As it happens, just as the sport's marketing and presentation have gotten more professional, the talent on the court is looking less so, with the best college-age players leaving school after a year or two to play professionally.

But the mismatch doesn't seem to bother the fans.

After the tournament's first three rounds, the Nielsen ratings company reports that the games have averaged 8.4 million TV viewers, a 14 percent rise over last year's first week. And the jump online is even more dramatic: The NCAA says visits to its March Madness On Demand website and mobile apps have surged 47 percent — with more than a third of those visits through the new iPad and iPhone apps.

TV Milks A Cash Cow

Just how big is March Madness?

The men's tournament generates more TV ad revenue than any sports playoff except the NFL's, according to the market research firm Kantar Media. Over the past decade, the firm reports, advertisers have paid CBS more than $4.8 billion.

A 30-second ad during last year's championship game between Butler and Duke sold for an average of $1.2 million.

The tournament is also a bonanza for the oddsmakers in Las Vegas. The gambling industry says more money is wagered on it than on any other sporting event except the Super Bowl. Experts also say the tourney generates the most actual wagers of any sporting event.

"It's bigger and bigger every year because of the Internet and the amount of exposure from the media, which just makes it a great event for us," said Jay Kornegay, director of the Race and Sports SuperBook at the Las Vegas Hilton.

A Talent Drain Has Perils — And Pluses

At the same time, hoops watchers worry that the talent level on the court has diminished because so many players bolt early for the NBA.

Notably, the front-runner for the NBA's most valuable player award — Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls — would be a senior at the University of Memphis if he hadn't turned pro after his freshman year. And the projected runner-up, superstar LeBron James of the Miami Heat, never attended college at all.

That talent drain has led to more parity than ever among the 68 schools in this year's NCAA field, with no single team dominating the regular season. The field also included an all-time high of five schools that lost 14 games.

Michael Wilbon, co-host of the ESPN show Pardon the Interruption and a columnist for ESPN.com, wrote that this year's tournament features "zero great teams, zero great players." Wilbon said he longed for the "really good" teams of the 1980s and 1990s led by Michael Jordan (North Carolina), Patrick Ewing (Georgetown) or Christian Laettner (Duke).

The Downside Of Big Money

The tournament is enjoying its grandest exposure this year as a result of a new 14-year, $10.8 billion deal between CBS and Turner Broadcasting. For the first time in its 73-year history, every tournament game is being televised nationally — on CBS, TBS, TNT or truTV. That helps explain the big TV ratings boost.

But while fan interest continues to grow, the new TV deal amplifies an ever-present concern: Where there's more money, NCAA rules violations are sure to follow. Some observers say the deal, which replaces a $6 billion agreement between CBS and the NCAA signed in 1999, will encourage more schools to cheat.

"I think you're going to see teams and colleges trying to make sure the products they put on the court don't look so amateurish. I hope I'm wrong," says Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. "If it becomes more lucrative again to win more games and be on TV, I think there are coaches around who are willing to do more things that they shouldn't be doing — taking kids in knowing there is no way they are going to graduate even though they play great ball."

Here's how that big pile of TV money gets doled out: The NCAA makes a payment to each participating team's conference — more than $1.4 million per game, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Then the conferences use different formulas to divide that money among their schools.

That sort of incentive, Lapchick suggests, drives schools to prioritize wins over academics.

The Grad Rate Challenge

Lapchick's institute issued its annual report last week on the graduation rates for teams playing in both the men's and women's tournaments. The report found that nearly all of the women's teams graduated 70 percent of their players; less than half of the men's teams reached that level.

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan endorsed a proposal by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics to ban from the tournament any team that isn't on track to graduate at least half of its players.

"If you can't graduate one in two of your student athletes, I just question the institutional commitment to academics," said Duncan, who was a co-captain of Harvard's basketball team in the mid-'80s.

The NCAA isn't expected to enact his suggestion. The Knight Commission says 10 men's teams in this year's tournament fall below that standard. And according to Lapchick's numbers, four teams made the Sweet 16 have graduation rates below 50 percent: Kentucky (44 percent), Florida (44 percent), Connecticut (31 percent) and Arizona (20 percent).

The Knight Commission calculated that over the past five tourneys, the NCAA has distributed more than $400 million to conferences for their teams' appearances. Of that sum, nearly $179 million, or 44 percent, went to teams that weren't on pace to graduate at least half of their players.

"Overall, athletes' graduation rates are a little better than non-athletes'," says Garry Howard, editor-in-chief of the Sporting News and a former basketball player at Lehigh University. "But to say that everybody is going to start to break the rules to win — and get more of that money — I don't think so. But you will see some of that. ... What the NCAA has to address is the fact that they are making billions off the backs of the athletes, barely giving them time to study and not even letting them have part-time jobs. I think athletes should get compensated."

Correction March 24, 2011

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the men's basketball teams at Brigham Young, Purdue and Syracuse universities graduated fewer than half of their players. Actually, the 2011 graduation rate for Brigham Young is 100 percent, for Purdue is 67 percent, and for Syracuse is 54 percent. The story also incorrectly said that Kansas State made the Sweet 16 in this year's NCAA tournament. In fact, the Wildcats were eliminated last weekend.