NY Times (Advertising Down) Attacks College Basketball (Ratings Up)

NY TImes
Dan Flynn
Auburn, AL

Count on the New York Times to base a piece on how few people watched Texas Southern in March Madness ($1.134 billion in TV revenue to rank barely behind NFL playoffs) while three other much better March Madness games aired on other channels.

First the facts from TV By the Numbers from after last year’s March Madness:

NFL Football Playoffs  $1,233 million

March Madness $1,134 million

NBA Basketball $875 million

Major League Baseball $360 million

College Football Bowl Games $201 million (joined the billion club with playoffs this year)

NHL Hockey $137 million

The timing of Sandomir’s article appears bad. CBS/Turner announced that Thursday’s slate of four Sweet Sixteen Games set a viewership record. The 9.1 share trounced last season’s 7.0 for the Thursday night Sweet Sixteen games. The Times, which lost 2.1 percent in advertising revenue last year, certainly would trade trajectories with the NCAA Tournament in a New York minute.

Attack on College Football

Let’s give the New York Times Richard Sandomir, who once ranked Hoosiers as the second greatest sports film, the “Captain Obvious” award for feeling the big breaking news he needed to write about was his discovery that college football was more popular than college basketball. The last time that would have been breaking news was 32 years ago when the Big East voted not to allow Penn State to join since they wanted to focus on basketball.

A major premise of his piece is that college bowl games like Auburn-Wisconsin are “irrelevant” because they are not part of the playoff system. After a year of watching all of the “relevant” games in New York involving the 4-12 Jets, 6-10 Giants, 14-58 Knicks, 30-40 Nets, 79-83 Mets, and 84-78 Yankees, is he completely oblivious to the significance of a major Big Ten team beating a major SEC team after almost a decade of Big Ten football being belittled in the midst of SEC national titles?

The Bowl games are each team’s championship and crucial to each conference’s success as top recruits decide where they want to play and TV contracts grow even bigger.

Attack on College Basketball

Sandomir then builds on his first inane premise of bowl game irrelevance to reach his conclusion that the fact that these irrelevant bowl games draw more eyeballs than college basketball games proves March Madness really is barely followed.

His prime example? Only 501,000 people watched when the 208th-best college basketball team, Texas Southern of the SWAC, face the 2nd-best team, Arizona (according to ratings at www.kenpom.com).

I can’t believe that a veteran sports reporter like Sandomir, who even wrote a book The Final Four of Everything, is not aware that the game was at 2 p.m. on a Thursday, when most people are at work, or that Texas Southern was the fourth best Texas basketball team on the air during that game.

At that time the biggest alumni base watched the Texas Longhorns play Butler; others watched the biggest basketball program in history (UCLA) beat SMU in a last-second thriller. Fans who love upsets tuned-in to watch Georgia State’s RJ Hunter hit a bomb to stun Baylor while his father fell off his chair.

And Sandomir is surprised fans weren’t tuning back to see how the 208th-best team in the country fared against Arizona? Sandomir points out that more people watched a very good 33-28 Bowl Game between South Alabama and Bowling Green that was the only game on when it aired on a Saturday before Christmas. Does he believe that if that game were played on a Tuesday afternoon when fans had the option of watching Texas, UCLA, or Baylor play in a bowl game at the same time that even 501,000 fans would have watched South Alabama-Bowling Green?

College Basketball Net Revenue

While Sandomir has written about the sports business for decades, the tax-and-spend supporting New York Times may be rubbing off on him because he does not seem focused on the fact that net revenue is more important than gross revenue.

As noted, there is no disputing that college football has been much bigger than college basketball since the beginning of time. It would have been worth him noting that March Madness has been the only $1 billion sporting even in the country besides the Super Bowl until the college football playoffs became the third this year.

However, college basketball is so successful from a net revenue perspective that new colleges are trying to move up to the Division 1 level every year for a chance at the March Madness pie. There are now 351 Division 1 college basketball teams with more trying to join. FBS just dropped to 127 teams.

When the New York Times‘s “hometown” Rutgers went to a Bowl game a couple of years ago against a marque college football brand name in Virginia Tech, both schools lost money on the bowl game. College football is big but it is expensive. It also requires schools to match the scholarships with 85 women’s scholarships to comply with Title IX, and college football generally keeps their money. College basketball brings in the revenue to pay for all the extra women’s scholarships required by football, as each Division I team gets money from March Madness based on their conference champion competing in the event.

Few New Yorkers Watch College Sports

Perhaps Sandomir needs to get out of New York and go some place where college sports remain relevant. Out west they are proud of the Pac-12 Conference of Champions. The Midwest still has the biggest brand in the Big Ten. Texas and all the teams that want to beat Texas will always make the Big 12 relevant. And obviously the SEC is king of all life down south. The Northeast is the only place where college sports has a tiny following due to the dominance of pro sports.

A few years ago I noticed that more people in the Birmingham TV market (out of 710,000 TV sets) watched the national college football championship than watched in the New York market (7.4 million TV sets). Obviously very few pay any attention to college sports in New York, so perhaps the New York Times should focus back on hockey—the Rangers lead the Metropolitan division with the Islanders not far behind—and not try to belittle a sporting event that brings in eight times as much revenue as the Stanley Cup.