The Student Section convenes the first part of a college basketball media roundtable, with help from our partners at Awful Announcing. The second installment of this roundtable will be published Tuesday at AA.
Matt Yoder, the editor of Awful Announcing, joins our panel today. We also have two special guests on hand for these discussions: Raphielle Johnson writes for College Basketball Talk at NBC Sports. Chris Dobbertean writes for SB Nation’s Blogging The Bracket site, where you’re encouraged to check out his early-season holiday tournament primer. He is also SBN’s chief bracketologist.
THE COLLEGE HOOPS CALENDAR AND SCHEDULING ISSUES
1) How much does it bother you that the Thanksgiving tournaments coincide with the crescendo of the college football regular season? Should it bother the people who run the sport, not to mention those on the television side?
MATT YODER: It really doesn’t bother me because the long Thanksgiving weekend is as good a time as any to showcase the best teams in the sport for those early season tournaments. I know in spite of whatever else may be going on in the world at the time, Maui is always appointment viewing for me. Logistically speaking, if you’re going to have multi-day tournaments with these players still called “student-athletes,” it seems to be the only realistic time to hold them unless you wanted to wait until Christmas.
BART DOAN: It doesn’t bother me because I choose what I want to watch, and having too much sports to choose from is rarely a bad thing, right? Now, saying that, I never have watched anything more than a scant amount of college basketball at a time more reserved for football, family, food, and craft beer. Should it bother people that run the sport? I don’t know, because those who run the sport are the same folks that are running college football. I think those folks understand that college basketball, until football ends, is like baseball after opening day, or probably as a better analogy, the opening act during a concert when everyone’s there to see the headliner other than a few guys who “have been with the band way back when they were doing shows out of an abandoned barn.”
RAPHIELLE JOHNSON: It really doesn’t bother me at all. While we who love college basketball would love to see the sport get even more attention, the fact of the matter is that for many casual fans, it’s a sport on the periphery that doesn’t garner much attention outside of March and games in which name brand programs or highly regarded players are playing. The tournaments tend to lend themselves to some afternoon basketball, so that’s a positive, but the ratings are never going to be astronomical in November due to the number of games available to viewers. Plus, where are you going to move these games to? December’s dominated by bowl games, and you’re not moving the season up so the in-season events would be played in October either.
SCOTT KING: It doesn’t bother me at all. Having most of the major games during the week helps missing some of the key weekend games. College football on actual Thanksgiving Day features a pair of games where South Florida currently has the best record of the four. The Battle for Atlantis games will be over by 5:30, it’s not like they conflict with much outside of the Lions traditional early game.
Not to be extraordinarily negative, but some of the lesser tournament games wouldn’t be watched, no matter when they were played. Sorry, Notre Dame-Monmouth, an actual tournament game that will be played on Thanksgiving.
CHRIS DOBBERTEAN: Since this is my second favorite time of the season, it bothers me. In fact, I’ve long been a proponent of some of these tournaments — the now largely ignored Great Alaska Shootout, for example — switching to the Christmas/New Year’s timeframe. Granted, I wrote that piece before the creation of the College Football Playoff, which complicates matters, but the time between mid-December exams and the New Year is still a little less crowded from a college sports perspective than Thanksgiving is. You only have a few bowl games a day as your competition, as opposed to the two stacked, rivalry-filled weekends that the November tournaments encounter.
Since, these tournaments are more programming driven than tourism driven (despite their locales), I’m surprised networks haven’t moved a few more to a time where there’s more of a potential audience, considering how many people take chunks of time off in late December. The Diamond Head Classic is screaming for an East Coast counterpart for Christmas week, for example.
MATT ZEMEK: It bothers me that when I’m covering college football on Thanksgiving weekend, I’m missing out on a number of big tournaments. Battle 4 Atlantis has become one of the better Thanksgiving tournaments, but covering the late-stage matchups in the tournament was hard to do last year, given that TCU (in the College Football Playoff hunt) was playing Thanksgiving night and Friday offered a slate with several crucial college football games. It’s a college sports blogger’s nightmare if basketball is to receive due attention.
Yet, I fully realize that holiday tournaments are just that — holiday tournaments. How else will fans travel to attractive locales, and how else will ESPN get the platform for these events? Wrapping them around a holiday makes sense… even if football buries them in terms of visibility.
In thinking about this issue a little more deeply, I’ve come to the conclusion that the early-season part of a college basketball television schedule — while presenting genuine problems and conflicts for me and others who cover college football — just can’t be overhauled. Really — what’s the alternative structure which pleases everyone? I don’t have it. Sometimes, it’s best to admit you don’t have the answer, instead of manufacturing one.
2) Should college basketball strongly consider moving back the season so as to not overlap as much with football, or is this a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
YODER: They shouldn’t, if only because April Madness doesn’t have the same ring to it as March Madness (and yes, I know the Final Four is in April). Seriously though, it’s something I would at least consider from the NCAA point of view. As stated above, you could hold a lot of these season opening tournaments during Christmas time up against bowl season around the end of December as a proper kickoff and at least not be going up against the quantity of football action. Right now such a large chunk of the season gets lost amongst football, it’d at least give more room to the basketball season more time to shine. But then again, how much do those non-conference games really matter in the grand scheme of things anyways?
DOAN: I’m not sure I buy the notion that “it ain’t broke” if you’re talking about it from a ratings perspective. The game itself is as exciting as ever, and the ratings for the NCAA tournament continue to balloon, but according to The Sporting News, 60 percent of regular season games last season drew a 0.0 or 0.1 rating. That’s “reruns of “Full House” at 3 a.m.” level. I’m not sure moving back the season really solves anything, because no sport shows such a chasm in disparity between regular season and postseason viewing. That’s the way it’s set up, and nothing is going to change that fact. Yes, it’d work a little better to push it back to not oppose football so early, but you’re also looking at cramming more games in the student athlete’s shorter schedule, including with finals taking up a portion of the season.
JOHNSON: Leave it alone. While I think this conversation deserves more respect than it’s been given in some circles, shouting down the thoughts of those who may want to move the season, moving it back means you run into events such as the Masters, and the playoffs in the NBA and NHL. Not to mention the NFL Draft. The season is fine where it is, but there’s no harm in discussing possible moves. And I don’t think it’s something the networks would sign off on either. Turner isn’t going to harm some of its NBA Playoffs product just to appease those who want the college basketball season moved back.
KING: At first, the reaction is to scoff that college basketball has to change its start date. After thinking about it, I think that it would be a good thing. Starting the season in December and ending Kentucky Derby weekend seems like it would be just as effective.
The main drawbacks in this scenario are that college basketball’s regular season isn’t viewed as the most important. We’ve seen teams with losing records make the tournament. We’ve seen fifth place teams in power conferences easily make the field. Plus, the length of the season means it would conflict with something.
Starting in December would put the start of the season in college football bowl season. Since ESPN holds the rights for seemingly every game, college basketball would get bumped to lesser channels or have to play games on non-traditional times. With football being the most popular sport, it’s too hard to avoid unless they play the games during the summer.
DOBBERTEAN: There simply isn’t a good solution to this problem, which most certainly exists. If you move the season back to start in December, March Madness has to start later, which won’t fly given the shift of the NCAA Tournament to mostly off-campus venues due to their revenue-generating capabilities. It’s hard to imagine the NBA and NHL adjusting their playoff schedules to cater to the NCAA.
ZEMEK: In a perfect world, the season would start right after the Heisman Trophy ceremony. The 24-Hour Marathon starting today (Monday) would begin on the Monday after the Heisman and Army-Navy. Teams could play one showcase game before Christmas and add on a number of cupcake games in late December. The Big Ten-ACC Challenge would be the first week of January, when people are paying a lot more attention to hoops, once the bowl games are over. The season would end on the last weekend of April.
However, Jim Nantz needs to call The Masters — how do you get around that conflict?
If logistical issues get in the way, it’s not worth fighting a battle to try to alter the whole season’s structure. That mid-December start would enable Christmas holiday tournaments to remain, but no Maui Invitational? Ruh-roh.
It’s best for me to drop this dream — it’s worth talking about, but ultimately not worth pursuing at all costs.
3) TBS will televise the 2016 national championship game. Is this a big deal? Should it be a big deal?
YODER: It is more so for the continued evolution of televised sports than anything NCAA-specific. We’ve already seen the College Football Playoff move to cable and a number of other championship events as well. The national championship game is just continuing the trend and following in the footsteps of the semifinals.
DOAN: It’s not a big deal now, but it will be down the road. The NCAA Tournament has survived banishing games to whatever the hell TruTV is, so if people want to watch something, they’ll find a way. The MLB Playoffs did very well this year tossing games on non-traditional channels most of us have to actively seek out because we have no idea what they are otherwise, like TBS and Fox Sports 1. Most of the world has grown up with cable as a major influence. Your big issue, though, is that you’re squeezing out low income folks that cannot afford even basic cable from watching something that used to be an automatic option. That’s some bull spit right there if you ask me. As more and more people become cord cutters, banishing important stuff to cable will lead to ratings bloodletting.
JOHNSON: I don’t think it’s a huge deal, because of the number of households that have cable access and games are available online as well. Limiting the late round games to network television would be the preference for me, but it isn’t something that is impossible to adjust to. It’ll be fine.
KING: It is a big deal in the sense that many more people are cutting the cord. It is not a big deal in the sense that TBS is widely available and if you don’t have cable, you can go somewhere and watch it. The only place this is a big deal is with old people who can’t wrap their heads around things not being on the big four networks.
DOBBERTEAN: I understand why this has to happen — Turner paid a significant portion of the contract that kept the NCAA Tournament on CBS, but I’m not a fan of pulling marquee events off over-the-air television. To me, these types of moves limit your audience, even if they might increase the bottom line. Of course, the bottom line is what matters most these days.
But in terms of the presentation, it won’t matter a bit, which is the nice thing about the CBS-Turner contract. Though we’ll get to that more in Part II.
ZEMEK: All instances in which signature sporting events cannot be easily accessed by all Americans — such that low-income Americans can’t find a network TV home (ABC/CBS/NBC/FOX) as they try to save money — are deplorable. Totally (commercially) understandable, but deplorable nonetheless.
4) What is the one fundamental change you’d like to see in college basketball scheduling, more than anything else — either as a fan or as a critic of how programs schedule?
YODER: This hits close to home being in Columbus and so close to Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ non-conference schedule is a bit of a running joke every year. We all know Thad Matta wants to keep that 20+ win season streak alive, so the non-conference home schedule is filled with the likes of Mount St. Mary’s, Grambling, UT-Arlington, VMI, Mercer, and more. And fans have to pay good money for those games! Thank God for the ACC-Big Ten challenge so at least Virginia comes to town this year.
OSU does play one other marquee game against Kentucky… but of course it’s in Brooklyn. This is the biggest problem in scheduling – reward your actual fans who pay money to see you by cutting back on the number of neutral site games and actually stage some of these top-flight showdowns on campus instead of always going to New York or Chicago.
DOAN: Since these are opinions, there aren’t supposed to be “right or wrong” answers. In this case, there is one clear right one: bring back Bracket Buster week. The idea was sheer brilliance, taking an open weekend late in the season and pitting mid majors against one another for bubble separation purposes. It created a faux NCAA tournament feel to it even though it was no such hard and fast elimination event. It gave teams showcases that otherwise might not get them and broke up the monotony. Why it’s gone, I’ll never know. Additionally, and this goes for all sports, but put some darned key games on Friday. Bars are full. People are happy because they’re off the next two days often. College students are good to do just about anything on Friday nights. There’s just no reason anymore in sports to keep treating Friday like it has leprosy.
JOHNSON: Fewer made for TV neutral site one-off games. Coaches try to spin it as getting prepared for the “neutral” environments of postseason play, but there’s far greater value in playing a true away game against a quality opponent. Not only do you test yourself in a tough environment, but you also have the chance to add a very valuable win to your résumé.
KING: We need more home and home series and fewer neutral-site event games. It’s great to watch Kentucky play Duke. It’s less great when they play in Chicago. It’s great that Kentucky and Ohio State are playing, less great when it’s in Brooklyn. It’s all about making money, but college sports are special because of the crowds. Playing in Rupp, in Cameron, in Assembly Hall, those are special places to enjoy a game. Cavernous stadiums and sterilized atmospheres can stay in the NBA.
DOBBERTEAN: Since casual fans pay the most attention later in the season, one thing I’d like to see is more teams scheduling a non-conference game, preferably a quality one, in late January or early February. The SEC and Big 12 might just be innovators on this front by playing their challenge series on January 30th this season.
I suspect a quality non-conference game five to six weeks from Selection Weekend would have wide-ranging benefits. Teams would get an early taste of March before the month arrives: a break from the monotony of conference play and, possibly, its officiating along with a look at a different type of opponent that might prepare you for the elimination portion of the schedule. Meanwhile, fans, especially the more casual ones, would receive a sample of what they missed in November and December and a teaser of what’s to come.
ZEMEK: This is my big issue in college basketball scheduling. I speak about it as a critic of programs, not as a fan or as a critic of networks.
Programs — which really refer to coaches, though athletic directors play a part — need to get a lot smarter about arranging schedules. Illinois and John Groce scheduled horribly last season, dragging down the Illini’s RPI. Other teams schedule very poorly out of conference to unnecessarily hurt their RPI. There’s really no excuse for power programs to play so many schools below the top 200. Teams with NCAA tournament aspirations should be wearing out the top 150, playing multiple road games against teams they expect to be at or near the 75-to-125 range. Yet, that’s not even my biggest critique of coaches when they schedule.
Here’s the biggest thing coaches and programs need to do in the future… which would improve the sport on TV (but that’s a secondary effect): Schedule a big non-conference game in late February.
Really — why isn’t this done a lot more in the industry? It’s the most puzzling question (and reality) in the sport.
Think about it for a second: Teams play conference games and get one kind of whistle from officials. Then they get to the Big Dance, and the whistles are completely different. This is how and why the likes of Kansas and Villanova get bounced from the tournament on the first weekend. They run into a game against an unfamiliar opponent on a neutral floor with different whistles than they’re used to.
How do you solve this? PLAY A GAME ON A NEUTRAL COURT IN LATE FEBRUARY, against a tough non-conference opponent!
It has always struck me as odd that whereas college football rivalries such as Florida State-Florida are late-season non-conference games, college hoops has no equivalent… but it should. Cramming all the non-conference games into the first month and a half of the season deprives us of the ability to see these teams later in the season. One could make the argument that those two teams can’t be bracketed into the same region in the Dance. True. However, this is not a case in which teams would schedule multiple games. They’d schedule one game during the part of their conference schedules (just about every team has one) when they play only one conference game and not two. The Selection Committee can adjust seed lines to work around this problem… but it’s exactly what Jay Wright and Bill Self should do to help their teams deal with different levels of officiating after getting a certain kind of whistle all season.
5) On a larger level, is there anything which should clearly be done to make the regular season more meaningful, or is the condition of the sport underestimated (and given too much doom-and-gloom treatment) in relationship to its regular season (or both)?
YODER: Basketball and football have diametrically opposed regular seasons when it comes to the importance of each game. Part of it is just the nature of the beast – the length of each campaign and the fact the postseason is 68 on one hand and 4 on the other – but I think the biggest issue might be the existence of conference championships, which really leave the regular season null and void of any true importance. Perhaps the NCAA could change the rule and let the auto-bid go to the regular season champion, or cut the conference tournaments down to the top four teams. I don’t see either happening, but right now the rules are set up to render the regular season meaningless, aren’t they?
DOAN: The answer is a risk not worth taking. College basketball has a lot of artificial barriers working against it. It starts out during the zenith of college football hype and by the time the NFL ends, it has only about a month and a half left. You’re also looking at the meat of the season being around the two most “family gathering” holidays, when people are preoccupied with things not related to sports or television viewing. College basketball is the opposite of college football, which emphasizes the “every week is the playoffs” style over the mostly tepid 400-bowl game postseason format. College basketball goes the other route, having the best singular event in sports at the expense of the regular season. The only way you really change that is to somehow diminish March Madness, which, while it could stand to have a few less teams, is not worth screwing with at the expense of a few more eyeballs on Florida versus Kentucky.
JOHNSON: I don’t think so. Given the number of games that teams play, you’re going to have a lot of contests that get overlooked by the masses. Until you get to the postseason I don’t think basketball is going to dominate the ratings, outside of those marquee matchups matching popular programs and/or players.
KING: There need to be more events and event programming. The season kicked off on Friday the 13th, but the real start of the season is Tuesday with the ESPN 24 hour marathon. The tournaments like Maui, Atlantis, the NIT and so on offer a spotlight. Outside of the major weekend games in December when the heavyweights play each other, there isn’t much to ramp up interest once conference play starts. Sure, there are event games, but there is nothing outside of the historic rivals that hook the casual viewer. I think splicing in some of the huge games in January and February would give the sport a jolt. This would be especially great for some of the teams like Wichita State, who play every ‘name’ opponent on their schedule before Christmas.
DOBBERTEAN: The answer to this is simple: put more emphasis on the regular season championships, especially in the conferences outside of the Power 6 that should be bending over backwards to get their best possible entrant into the NCAA Tournament to increase the chances of grabbing those valuable win shares.
Now, I’m not saying get rid of conference tournaments, as much as I really want to. This won’t happen since those same conferences need the money and national attention that comes from getting games on ESPN and other national outlets when the biggest audiences are watching. Instead, I’m going to suggest that leagues be a bit more adventurous when coming up with postseason formats. Collin Sherwin, from SB Nation’s USF blog Voodoo Five, came up with a fiendishly good idea on that front back in March. In short, his proposed format protects the best three teams, allows the rest to play for the fourth semifinal spot, then lets the top seed choose its semifinal opponent.
Now I’d go even further and give the No. 1 seed a bye all the way to the final, setting the tournament up like the old Davis Cup, where all the challengers eliminate each other for the right to one shot at taking down a rested regular season champ. (Admittedly, ties in the standings would complicate things.)
Now that would lead to some real Championship Week drama.
ZEMEK: Two brief notes here:
A) That scheduling piece — getting coaches and programs to play neutral-court games of note in late February — enhances the visibility of the product in a way which would minimize the negative effects of football drowning out the sport in late November and early December. It is not the reason why I advocate scheduling tough non-conference games in late February — I’ve outlined the primary reasons above; it’s for the sake of the coaches and programs themselves — but it happens to exist, so consider it a bonus.
B) “The Murray State Rule”
If a team in a conference – especially the smaller ones – goes unbeaten in its conference (as Murray State and also North Carolina Central did last season), it gets a protected at-large bid. The conference tournament still gives an automatic bid to the winner, but a high-achieving small-conference champion gets its Dance card.
You keep everything that’s great about the conference tournaments, but you put in a high achiever instead of a seventh-place Big Ten team which goes 8-10 in the conference and loses an 8-1 quarterfinal by 20 points on Friday morning of Championship Week.
You know you want this, America.