Final Four ratings were up by 37 percent. That does not surprise. Terrible games plummeted the ratings last season. The games moved back to CBS this year. It would be more surprising if the ratings had not bounced back.
What’s more interesting is the ratings for the tournament itself being up 11 percent, at a time where NBA ratings and those of other sports seem to be in stark decline. Could the NCAA Tournament have been the great escape from politics America needed?
The NCAA Tournament itself, for the most part, is apolitical. The amateurism debate does not stop people from watching, and there has been no organized protest of it. There is no “war on basketball,” and college basketball has not had the flashpoints and open politics of other sports. We had the HB2 bathroom law issue and pickup bros flying the confederate flag this tournament, but nothing political that was destined to become a full-blown, multiple day “thing.”
Everyone can fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket. It provides grist for small talk. Folks can put down their pitchforks for a bit and stop scrutinizing family, friends, and neighbors for ideological rigor. What team you’re rooting for carries no political connotations. Liberals and conservatives alike hate Duke.
The NCAA Tournament is also a one-off event. Far fewer people watch the college basketball regular season. Doing so is not a prerequisite for getting into the tournament. That would seem to be an advantage in the “politics as a major sport” era.
With everything going on in the real world, it’s hard to have a strong take on Russell Westbrook, care about the strong takes of others, and act as though that matters. Expecting people to sustain interest over six months of relatively meaningless regular season games may be too much to ask, especially when their team is out of it. That is where politics would be a drag on ratings.
However, the NCAA Tournament does not place demands on you. One can still get caught up in South Carolina’s Final Four run over a weekend and get back to the political grindstone on Monday morning. Every game matters. Often, the tournament is asking for just 5-10 minutes of your close attention. One can squeeze in a congressman voicemail during the commercial break.
Barring unforeseen events, we still have nearly four years of Donald Trump in politics. That’s not to mention the already existing smartphones and fleeting attention span problem. We have seen leagues such as the EPL, the NFL, and the NBA struggle. Maybe short tournaments will do better?
Olympics ratings were down in 2016. Though, the Olympics is far more of a big box TV extravaganza subject to changes in that model than a sporting event. It will be intriguing to see how the World Cup fares in 2018.