In the last month, two of the most recognizable national college basketball writers have been laid off: Andy Katz from ESPN, and Seth Davis from Sports Illustrated. They had been with their respective outlets for nearly 40 years combined. You can bet that this news is shaking NCAA institutions, as they wonder who will cover their sport, and for how much longer.
David Worlock, NCAA Director of Media Coordination and Statistics, provided the following statement to The Big Lead on the recent moves:
The cutbacks are certainly concerning, as the coverage of college sports and issues will suffer with the loss of experienced and fair writers from ESPN and Sports Illustrated. We’re hopeful these talented journalists are able to find an opportunity to continue covering collegiate athletics.
College basketball is, of course, not dying. The NCAA Tournament television contract with CBS and Turner runs through 2032, at roughly a billion dollars a year. Fans will continue to follow their alma mater and/or the teams they grew up rooting for, provided those schools maintain competitiveness. However, a lack of star-power in the sport, as well as conference realignment that prioritized football over basketball, have been quite damaging, at least insofar as people are interested in clicking on stories that involve teams that are not their own.
In last year’s NBA Draft, the first three picks — Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, and Jaylen Brown — were one-and-done’s. Just eight of the 30 players selected in the first round played at least three years in college. This past season, if things were like how the sport was 25+ years ago, Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell, Jahil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Myles Turner, Trey Lyles, and Devin Booker would have been juniors. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle, Noah Vonleh, Zach LaVine, James Young, and Tyler Ennis would have been seniors.
None of this is to say that these young men should not have left school to pursue considerable fortunes, nor that they should have been prevented from becoming professionals until after their junior year as is the case in football. Nevertheless, you’d be a lot more inclined to move traffic meters on college basketball stories in months not named March if those names above were in the headlines.
The movement toward one-and-dones – and before that, straight-to-pro moves – over the last two decades also has another impact. It puts the star players, who have less time to develop an audience and familiarity at the college level, in the hands of a few teams. Kentucky and Duke dominate recruiting, and they have constant churn on the roster and bring in new McDonald’s All-Americans. That doesn’t always translate to ultimate success on the court, assimilating that young talent over the course of a few months, but it has a trickle down. Add in the continuing foreign player influx (where fewer players from other countries go the Hakeem Olajuwon or Detlef Schrempf route of 30 years ago, and go to college in the U.S.), and fewer fanbases have stars to root for.
Over the last three drafts, we’ve averaged 15 foreign draft picks, and 32 different schools represented. Compare that to the drafts from 1984 to 1986, when the first 60 picks came from an average of 47 different schools. The 1986 draft, for example, had players from 17 different schools in the first 17 picks. Having the star players more concentrated at a select few schools makes there less of a need for specialists who know dozens of programs inside and out.
The other factor in this, which does not get brought up as often, is conference realignment. This was done to optimize football, and old college basketball rivalries fell by the wayside. For example, Missouri joined the SEC and gets great football matchups, but gone is its heated basketball rivalry with Kansas. The Big East, which fueled so many great storylines in the 80’s and 90’s, essentially disbanded.
With regard to the one-and-done’s, it’s not as though there is nothing the NCAA could do. Buoyed by the March Madness television money, they could make a good deal more financial incentives available to players, so the decision between staying in school and leaving for the pros for a year is not such a no-brainer. Or, at the very least, they could allow endorsement deals, which would be available in disproportion to star players, which could conceivably keep some of them around longer.
Outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated aren’t going to cede college basketball coverage altogether, but the institutional knowledge of people like Andy Katz and Seth Davis would be more valuable to them to retain if there were more year-round interest in the sport.