Monday night's Duke/Butler championship game did gangbusters ratings even by championship game standards, pulling in an average of 16 percent of urban households -- up a whopping 34 percent over last year's North Carolina/Michigan State final, and tied North Carolina-Illinois in 2005 (a showdown of that tournament's top two seeds) for the best overnight share for a men's title game since Duke/UConn (also a battle of top seeds) pulled a 16.9 in the Nielsens in 1999. In fact, according to Sports Media Watch, a 16 rating dwarfed the audience for every Major League Baseball game since the Red Sox's streak-ending win in Game 4 of the 2004 World Series and every NBA game since the Lakers beat the Kings in Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
It also came pretty close to matching the overnight rating for January's BCS Championship game, where Alabama and Texas drew a 17.2 rating on ABC. That wasn't bad by BCS Championship standards (it was up significantly over the previous two title games on FOX, which both drew slightly lower ratings than Duke/Butler), but, as Yahoo! Sports colleague Dan Wetzel points out via Twitter, it's a far less impressive showing by football standards:
Three facts: a) America is way into football; b) Under certain circumstances, America is more willing to watch the college version of some sports than the pro version; and c) On the same note, America is about three times as willing to watch plodding, Bird-stached Butler forward Matt Howard play for a trophy that it is to watch LeBron James, whose only NBA Finals appearance (2007) came in the lowest-rated series in league history.
It is not a fact, but based on a) -- that football long ago became "America's [Spectator] Sport" by a wide margin -- it's easy to agree with Wetzel's lament that "hoops should never be close to football" in the ratings under pretty much any circumstances, and to take the next logical step by assuming that college hoops wouldn't be close if college football mirrored its most effective gimmick: The all-powerful bracket. A smart eight or 12-team football playoff (or even the expansive 16-team gauntlet Wetzel has adopted as his pet plan) wouldn't have the same kind of impact as the 64-team (or 96-team!) death march when it comes to office pools, but it would introduce the most critical element of any tournament, the propulsive, eat-or-be-eaten struggle for survival among a collection of the best teams in the country that steadily intensifies and hooks more viewers for the remainder of the ride on a weekly basis. As opposed to asking them to tune in on a random weekday night to watch teams teams that haven't played in a month or more.
Obviously, matching the Super Bowl's huge advantage over the NBA Finals is not a remotely feasible goal for any event on earth, really (and the huge differences between the NFL/NBA and college football/basketball dynamics are much vaster than the sports themselves could even begin to explain). But if eight or 12 teams isn't 64, two teams isn't eight or 12, either. Annually competing with the standard set by the epic 2006 Rose Bowl between USC and Texas -- still easily the highest-rated game in BCS history -- would be a no-brainer. If the geometric charms and inherent fairness of a playoff can lift an audience for college basketball into the same ballpark with college football and its much-reviled system, surely it can lift college football into another ballpark entirely by throwing off the chains of the BCS. Which happens to be a ballpark college sports desperately need right now.
Playoff opponents will no doubt point out that college football is already in another ballpark when it comes to regular season ratings, and for the university presidents and conference commissioners who call all of these shots, maintaining the existing pipelines -- billion-dollar network contracts, or the network itself -- still trumps adding any new revenue stream that might possibly (emphasis on these qualifiers) come at the current cash flow's expense. This is why they say ludicrous things like "every game is a playoff," a tacit admission in itself that fans obviously want to watch playoffs. If/when we finally get them, the numbers for the college football version of Butler-Duke (Boise State-Notre Dame?) at the end of a month-long slugfest will put all the '06 Rose Bowl and every other offering from the current, awkward transition period to shame, and the power brokers will be too busy counting the proceeds to wonder why they ever changed it.
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Hat tip: Darren Rovell.