Belated Notes on the NCAA Tournament’s New Contract

I know my already slow posting pace has become even slower recently. The reasons for that will come out in due time. But I did want to make some notes on the NCAA Tournament signing a new long-term deal with CBS and Turner a few weeks back, and the tournament expanding, for the moment, to only 68 teams. That’s a relief… for now.

Early round games will be broadcast on CBS, TBS, TNT, and… truTV? All of the proposed bidders had fourth channels that weren’t going to be as good as the others; ESPN had the best package with ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN Classic in a pinch or if ESPN was really committed to killing sports on ABC – although given the justification for not putting games on CBS College Sports, ABC Family would have been more likely than Classic or the U (although ESPN apparently didn’t think the U’s limited distribution was a factor). (Fox had FX, Fox Sports Net, and… Fox News? Fox Soccer Channel, in a pinch? Alternately, the Fox College Sports channels? Comcast/NBC had Versus, Universal Sports, and… Comcast SportsNet, or CNBC, or MSNBC?) But CBS and Turner could have used CBS College Sports and even if it didn’t reach as many people, at least it would have fit (and helped further distribution for the network). Heck, they could have even dipped into their existing team-up for the CW, though I don’t know how healthy that network is at the moment.

(Although ESPN had the best package of networks, I wouldn’t be surprised if the biggest call for a 96-team field came from their corner, and that this demand helped kill their chances. ESPN is really crowded with sports events on its schedule; among other things, on the first weekend of the tournament the Nationwide Series race would likely have to be pushed back to 11 AM ET or earlier to accommodate both men’s and women’s tournaments. The major obstacles, especially for ESPNU, are the wrestling championships, which could be moved to another weekend, and the NIT, especially the second round. I wouldn’t be surprised if ESPN wanted to kill the NIT to free up space for tournament games, even if those games would need to be replaced in the main tournament. For the same reason, unless the NIT died I can’t see ESPN not putting first round games on ABC, as it needs one-channel wiggle room and games aren’t being put on the News, and if that’s the case I can’t see them not putting the rest of the tournament on ABC either. Except…)

Needless to say I’m not pleased with CBS and Turner alternating coverage of the Final Four. I had a problem with one LCS being on broadcast and one not, and I have a problem with the Final Four only being on broadcast in alternate years, which doesn’t even make sense to me, unless Turner wanted some Final Fours if it was going to get in to the early rounds. And it was one thing for ABC (and NBC, and CBS) to show regular season college football but for the National Championship to be on cable, but it’s quite another for CBS to show early rounds of the NCAA Tournament but for the championship to be on cable.

But more than that is the problem I have with the Final Four and national championship moving to cable at all. It’s a trend following on from the move of the BCS to ESPN, and the parties involved don’t see any pushback because TBS is nationally available, but this would set a really bad precedent. I don’t know this for certain, but unlike the BCS, the NCAA is a legitimate sanctioning body, and if Congress allowed this to stand it would likely open the floodgates for any championship, right up to the World Series and Super Bowl, to move to cable, and sports to all but abandon broadcast. ESPN may not like losing the tournament but they have to be salivating for Turner to win the argument. It might actually help an ESPN competitor like Versus to have more high-rated sporting events available, but if none takes advantage this would effectively give ESPN a monopoly on all of sports, with a few scraps left for Turner.

It’s interesting, though, that this alternation only starts in 2016 – after ESPN’s current BCS contract ends. Is this a sign that if the sports landscape becomes more broadcast-friendly, CBS might take the Elite Eight and Final Four back? Or that CBS and Turner might be hoping that by 2016, cable will have advanced to the point that a Congress that was reluctant now might be more forgiving? Or that the TV landscape will go all to hell, everyone will be watching on the Internet anyway, and it’ll be a non-issue? If being on CBS will “bring more ratings in the early years”, why not the later ones?

Will Turner start showing regular-season college basketball games? Will this be the end of staggered start times? I imagine the play-in games will move to Turner as well?

The NCAA Tournament “will have one look, but there will be separate branding” – so much for my hopes of Turner adopting consistent graphics across all sports, and on the other hand, is CBS planning on another graphics shake-up? Was the new graphics on the NFL last year a preview of further changes? Will CBS and Turner have different studio teams, and will there be one, two, or four studio teams?

I’m seeing several different theories as to why ESPN lost. One theory is that they’re saving up for an Olympic bid, but another is that ESPN is starting a new conservative bidding strategy as a result of increased interest from Disney bosses. That would mean a conservative Olympic bid as well, as well as a real opening for an ESPN competitor to swoop in.

Oh, and quit whining about Dick Vitale not being able to call a Final Four; I doubt ABC would be willing to put that sort of bombast to such a large and diverse audience on broadcast. He would have called the first two rounds only, since CBS’ B, C, and D color commentators already work for ESPN (though he might have bumped out Bill Raftery for the C spot – ESPN would face revolt if they didn’t hire Gus Johnson and there’s a reason CBS never paired him and Raft, so Dickie V wouldn’t have bumped out Len Elmore). I would have expected Brent Musberger, Bob Knight, and maybe Jay Bilas calling the Final Four – I know Knight is bombastic himself, but think of him as the new Billy Packer. I could see the other Sweet 16/Elite Eight teams being Brad Nessler/Jay Bilas, Sean McDonough/Bill Raftery, and Gus Johnson/Len Elmore, with Mike Patrick/Dick Vitale, Dave O’Brien/Steve Lavin, Mike Tirico/Hubie Brown, and Mike Breen/Mark Jackson/Jeff Van Gundy rounding out the first two round teams, with John Saunders, Hubert Davis, and Digger Phelps manning the studio.

On CBS and Turner, if I were to guess what they’ll do, is take the present teams, remove Dick Enberg who’s done with CBS apparently, add Marv Albert/Reggie Miller (and demote either Jay Bilas or Bill Raftery to the first two rounds only, with Verne Lundquist and either Bilas or Raft becoming the new B team, and Johnson/Elmore rounding out the Sweet 16/Elite Eight teams) and replace Dan Bonner with Doug Collins as Kevin Harlan’s partner for NBA synergy (as with my last two ESPN teams), throw out the Spero Dedes/Bob Wenzel team, and replace Mike Gminski as Tim Brando’s partner with Dan Bonner, Bilas, or Raftery, with the remainder going to Dick Stockton. (After Brando’s infamous performance one or two years ago when he lucked into a Gus Johnson situation and throughly blew it, I wouldn’t be surprised if CBS/Turner kept Dedes instead of Brando. I know the blogosphere hates Stockton, but he works TNT NBA games in the playoffs and is a big name.) Ian Eagle stays only because he already does some NBA playoff work for TNT; he’d be the first to go if it weren’t for that. You’re left with Nantz/Kellogg, Lundquist/Bilas, Albert/Miller, Johnson/Elmore, Harlan/Collins, Stockton/Raftery, Eagle/Spanarkel, Brando/Bonner (I could leave Spanarkel, Wenzel, or Gminski with Brando with Eagle getting Bonner, Bilas, or Raft).

One Comment

  1. Morgan Wick
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Okay, got on a roll on announcers there. Honestly, as big a reason why ESPN would go for NBA synergy as anything else is because they would need the announcers, especially if the NIT isn’t canned. Terry Gannon, Dan Shulman (who not that long ago I would have teamed with Raft), Jimmy Dykes (who could conceivably still team with Nessler, moving Bilas to Johnson and Elmore to O’Brien), and Fran Fraschilla will be needed on that and the Women’s Tournament. For similar reasons, it’s going to be very difficult for ESPN to come up with two more studio analysts for ESPN and the Deuce if they want separate studio guys.

    Occurs to me that Doug Collins may be getting a new coaching gig, so we might be able to keep Harlan and Bonner together.

    If Turner goes with four studio teams it’s more likely Dedes stays, because Ernie Johnson is THE studio guy for Turner and Brando is one of the few guys left. Perhaps they could poach James Brown for the fourth, though I’m not saying which would go to truTV.

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