The Death Of College Basketball?
Jan. 11, 2011
By Wes Durham
From time to time in the last month, I have struggled with something that is going on in our country. It's not just a Georgia Tech situation or even in a tough year, an ACC problem. It's become a national issue in college athletics and it's not going away anytime soon. We are slowly watching the decline and perhaps the possible death of college basketball on the national sporting landscape in our country.
In the last few weeks, I have bounced that thought off of several people who cover college sports and I've gotten nearly the same reaction from each of them. One even went so far to say that, "college basketball has lost its spot on the sporting map of our country".
That kind of thinking should be recognized and acted upon by both coaches and administrators to hopefully pull the sport back up by its collective "boot straps" and try to return it toward the middle of the sporting consciousness of our country. It won't be easy, some of the problems are fundamental, some of the solutions might be abstract or "out of the box", but if the game is going to make a comeback, I'm not sure we have a lot of time to waste.
First, the problems facing college basketball are obvious to most fans. But let's take two of the basic ones that can be fixed in the short term:
1. The season starts way too early when no one is paying attention. Who cares what is happening in mid-November or December in college basketball?
2. There are too many games on television in the early season and they get lost with all the other sports (NFL, College football) going on that time of year. Once the year starts, only the "national powers" are drawing consistently at home because most every game a team plays in the BCS of college basketball is on television.
Let's address the first statement. College basketball has slowly backed itself up to a start date of mid-November. This year most college teams played their first game the weekend of November 12-13. There were a handful of teams that played earlier that week.
Maryland was one of those teams, which meant that the Terps had less than three weeks of pre-season practice before their first game. Without Grevis Vasquez, Eric Hayes and others, how solid do you think the product Gary Williams put on the floor opening night was after two weeks of preparation?
The start of the season has to be pushed back, which shouldn't be a problem for most schools. And while we are moving the start date of the season, let's push the start of practice back to November 1. Those early season tournaments (Pre-Season NIT, 2K something and Maui) are getting lost during Thanksgiving week. Friday after Thanksgiving, did you watch the finals of the Pre-Season NIT or Auburn at Alabama? That's what I thought. Do you remember who was in it? How about the Wednesday night finals from Maui that week? Did the favorite win or did an unknown breakout and surprise the field?
Twenty-five years ago Georgia Tech's season began on November 25 (Thanksgiving week). Thirty years ago it began on November 30. Bobby Cremins' first team that year played 26 games starting on November 30 and finishing on March 4th, with a loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. Why did we let the season get so long? It means that there are games being played in November that nobody knows about or cares to know about.
Here's another example. Four years ago (2006-07), the Yellow Jackets played 32 games (6 more than 26 years earlier under Cremins) and it took from November 10 till March 16 to do it. They started 20 days earlier and finished 12 days later (32 combined days) for six additional games. That's is one game every 5.1 days...essentially one a week.
Some coaches, Tech's Paul Hewitt included, have said that basketball is hurt by being the only two-semester sport on the collegiate athletic calendar. I don't disagree. About the time that conference football championships and regular seasons are wrapping up, college basketball starts tapering their early season schedule down for semester exams.
It essentially kills the momentum of the sport. There is a month break between the end of college football's regular season and the bowl schedule, college basketball needs to take advantage of that. Starting a schedule after December 1, would help, beginning two weeks later might mean no real breaks in the schedule, but it would keep the sport going on the national landscape.
The Atlantic Coast Conference used to never play a conference game until after January 1st. Since the late `90's, the conference has gotten into a habit of playing at least one game before Christmas. This year, the ACC played three conference games before Christmas and one on New Year's weekend.
That's where we start answering the second question: Is television killing college basketball, especially early in the season?
The technology of television today is fantastic. High-definition, 3D, etc., it's the best it has ever been. Watching games in the comfort of your home is a great experience, but that's the problem. With so many choices available at your fingertips, it is killing the urge/need to go see the game in-person.
I heard a statement last week that perfectly described college basketball in most markets today. A friend of mine was going to a bowl game and said, "I didn't go last year because it was a game, this year it's going to be an event".
If I have all that technology at home and my favorite team is playing, unless it's a game that going to change the landscape of the season, I'm not very likely to go. I'd rather sit at home and watch the game than fight traffic, buy a ticket, find parking and the other things that go with seeing a game. But if it's an "event", then I'm going.
Therefore, one move might be, that despite the millions and even billions of dollars in television rights being paid to major conferences, its incumbent that those leagues find a way to cut down the number of games being shown during the course of the season. It's killing the urge of fans to see a game in-person.
Again, this is not a Georgia Tech or an ACC issue, it's a national one. There are places nationally that are not drawing nearly what they did a few years ago, let alone what they were doing a decade or so back. This problem doesn't exist at Kansas, Duke or UConn, but it is one that is alive and well in lots of other places.
Here's an example of the over exposure of college basketball on television. Last weekend, Georgia Tech opened ACC play at Boston College. The game started at 4 p.m. In the Atlanta market at the same time, there were at least four other basketball games on at the same time, along with an NFL playoff game. Now in Atlanta, Georgia Tech probably got its fair share of viewers. One of the other games was Georgia hosting Kentucky, so the numbers might be pretty good for basketball viewership. How many people do you think saw the finish of UConn at Texas?
Remember that Maui event from early in the year? Well, the Huskies won the tournament with a great performance by Kemba Walker, and he's had a great season to date. But nationally, who knows it? And when he hit his shot against the `Horns on Saturday, what are the chances the most fans saw it "live". Sadly, it's a question that has to be asked in college basketball.
To paraphrase the old Buggles song, "Video may be killing the basketball star".
In part 2 of this look at college basketball: