Sure, the thought goes, the fans love the upsets early, but they don’t love them late when the brackets are busted, and teams they don’t know reach the Final Four. But is Cinderella really bad for the television ratings as the tournament goes on?
I went back through the Final Four television numbers as posted at Sports Media Watch. And the results suggest that Loyola-Chicago is the team on the West/South half of the bracket that would garner the most interest from television viewers. You have a big market (Chicago) and a Cinderella, easy-to-cheer-for storyline for the casual fan. You have Sister Jean (and the biggest upset of the tourney is that someone hasn’t tried to tear her down yet). You have a group that has won gripping, intense games in every round. You set up the David-Goliath matchup that fans love, and express that love with their eyeballs (Two of the top-rated title games in the 1980’s were the NC State-Houston and Villanova-Georgetown upsets).
We’ve not seen many Cinderella runs by teams like Loyola, teams outside the power conference, but it’s not unprecedented. George Mason made a run in 2006. We’ve had Butler make consecutive finals, when they were in the Horizon League. We had VCU in 2011. Wichita State went to the Final Four as a 9-seed in 2013.
And none of the lowest-rated Final Four games since 1997 involve those teams. (* = games not broadcast on CBS).
- Oklahoma-Villanova, 2016 (6.1)*
- Kansas-Marquette, 2003 (6.3)
- UCONN-Florida, 2014 (6.9)*
- Memphis-UCLA, 2008 (7.2)
- UNC-Syracuse, 2016 (7.3)*
- Michigan State-UCONN, 2009 (7.8)
- Syracuse-Texas, 2003 (7.9)
The VCU-Butler semifinal in 2011, and Wichita State-Louisville semifinal in 2013, both had more viewers than the rivalry game in the same early Saturday slot between Kentucky and Louisville in 2012. The George Mason-Florida matchup in 2006 was put in the early time slot, and marks the only time that the early game got more viewers than the late game (UCLA-LSU that year) in the last 20 years. The Butler-Duke championship game in 2010, which was Butler’s first run to the Final, is the second-highest rated title game in the last decade, behind only Wisconsin vs. Duke in 2015.
So don’t bemoan Loyola’s run, enjoy the ride. You shouldn’t really care about what helps television executives and viewership numbers anyway, but Loyola isn’t a bad thing for CBS and Turner — the Final Four is on TBS, but the partners split ad revenue on the Tournament — whether or not they realize it. They put the Loyola-Kansas State game in the early time slot on Saturday in the Elite Eight, and I’m not even sure that’s the right call on picking up the value of this run.