Jan. 13, 2011
By Wes Durham
In Part One we examined why college basketball might be losing its share of the American sporting landscape to other interests and even other sports.
There has been no single issue that has changed college basketball in the last decade more than the “one and done” rule allowing a freshman to declare for the NBA Draft. Coincidentally, college basketball has become in some ways, a “free agency” for the NBA, which for the college game likely means that it has become no more than a “minor league” proving ground for the NBA. Time and time again, a player’s “stock” is evaluated by the media during the course of a season, all to determine where he will go in June NBA draft.
There is also a legitimate question as to whether the momentum of basketball has been taken over by football at the collegiate level. While numerous games are televised, basketball has lost the charisma that college football is generating on a national stage. There are occasional stories that grab the headlines, but on the whole, for better or for worse, football is king in the college game. It has the drama, the money and the compelling storylines.
That brings us to the sport of college basketball and its ulitimate fear, that at the end of the day, the national sporting public only cares about college basketball from “Selection Sunday” through the “Final Four”, give or take a couple weeks here or there.
Those are the three issues that we examine in Part Two:
Is college football stealing all the momentum of college basketball?
Whether you love or hate the BCS, you have to admit it keeps fans talking. Every Monday is a referendum about the sport, its players and coaches. During this past fall, one of the best examples was LSU. The Tigers were undefeated and being scrutinized for every six days between games. Their coach, Les Miles, was under fire for clock management, play calling, and yet, his team was undefeated. Amazing.
The storylines this past fall did not exactly showcase the sport in its most positive light, but it did bring more interest to the sport than in previous years. The scenarios that played out at Southern Cal, North Carolina and Auburn were just part of the season. Each day it seemed that there was another line item that was going to be a determining element of the season.
In part, that capsules the interest in college football. The BCS is good for business, especially the media business, which is the way most fans get information on their favorites teams. It is not a clear cut operation like the “Final Four”, which means it is controversial and those issues help keep it at the forefront of sports. Think about it. Boise State and TCU create a lot of issues outside of who is going to win the ACC, SEC or Big 12. In today’s sports, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The scheduling of football helps, although it’s not without concern, too. The season starts essentially Labor Day weekend and ends the first weekend in December with conference championship games. This year it was 12 games in 13 weeks. That’s easy to work with. Television has continued to perpetuate its strong position within the sport, by finding conferences (MAC, Sun Belt, WAC) willing to play games on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
There is no doubt as 2011 begins, that football is king of collegiate athletics. The Oregon-Auburn BCS title game drew a reported 27.3 million viewers, which was the top cable telecast in history by more than 5.5 million viewers. Attendance at bowl games was up for the first time in five years by nearly two percent. Those figures mean something in today’s sports. Yes, there are still problems in college football (too many bowl games, corruptive agents, etc.), but right now its winning the head-to-head battle with hoops.
Has the “one and done” rule created a “free agency of college basketball”?
From the early days of Darryl Dawkins, Moses Malone and Bill Willoughby, to today’s top players, who are likely to play just one year of college basketball and make the jump to the NBA, college basketball has stood idly by and watched players register for two semesters and then make a jump to the professional level.
The business aspect of the argument aside, this one rule has created more problems for the college game than most imagined. Fans of college basketball know that it’s a “necessary evil” to recruit some of the most talented players in the country, with the knowledge that they are likely only going to be on campus for a year. But has the sport benefitted from it? That’s a difficult discussion to have because it creates a philosophical problem with most programs. At the end of the day, I’m not sure college basketball is better from having the “one and done” player.
It has created a “free agency of college basketball” among some schools, which is not good, and needs to be addressed.
If the NBA doesn’t handle the issue in the new labor deal with the players union, it will be time for the NCAA (new president Dr. Mark Emmert) to address the problem across the board. Fans have lost interest in the sport, in part, because their team has players show up for one season then take off for the NBA. Fans, coaches, etc. are left to try and pick up the pieces and keep interest in the program on the rise. It doesn’t always happen that way, which ultimately hurts the sport on a national scale.
Georgia Tech has been affected by this rule a couple different times. In each scenario, you can’t blame the player for taking advantage of the system in place, but at the end of the day, the school is the one impacted the most. It’s not a “Tech exclusive” problem either. There are plenty of schools that have been impacted by the early departure of players. Coaches deal with it, but fans are tired of it and their frustration has reached a point that it is now impacting their perspective of the sport.
Has America reached a point where college basketball only matters for three weeks a year?
One of the best sporting events in the country is the Final Four. The national semi-finals on Saturday afternoon and night is a spectacle that has been embraced by the nation for many years, but that is the penultimate moment for the sport. Even Monday night’s national title game is anti-climactic compared to the double-header on Saturday. Regular attendees to the Final Four will tell you that Saturday is a better day than Monday, but by Monday, it’s the final game, so the interest is still there, principally because of the excitement for that three-week run each March.
The best days of the tournament in its run up to the Final Four are the first two days of the opening round. Thursday and Friday from noon till midnight, its basketball overload for America, and could very well be the biggest stage the sport gets all year. Those two days are the equivalent of New Year’s Day in college football.
That’s the problem with college basketball. Most of the country has lost interest until those first two days of the tournament. The argument on expanding the tournament last spring was that adding more teams watered down the event. Coaches are quick to tell you that roughly 20 percent of Division I teams make the tournament, and that if you get to the event you have had a successful season.
While that may be true, the NCAA might have served itself better by jumping to 96 teams last spring and opening the door wider for more interest in those three weeks. Because right now, it’s the only legitimate stage the sport gets during the year.
As we move through January and February, take note of how college basketball is being shown. Look at games on television, the arenas and the quality of the product on the floor. For the first time in a long time, the future of college basketball is not a guaranteed product in the sporting landscape of our country.