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How to Save College Basketball?

I've taken a look at this article before. It's written by a football writer, Pete Fiutak, and it discusses how to "save" college basketball. The problem, according to Fiutak, is that ratings have gone down for the Tournament and few people pay any attention at all to the regular season. I think on that point, Fiutak is right. There is something wrong with college basketball that is leading to (in my estimation) decreased interest in the sport as a whole.

Ratings for this particular tournament are actually up from last year, but I think there's something the idea that the sport is not very healthy right now, as this year just seems to a small reversal of a larger trend. The explanation as Fiutak sees it is in 4 parts:

College basketball used to be special. Even with the tournament, the regular season was a must-see every week, and then, right about when the Fab Five era at Michigan was coming to a close, a slew of key things happened that killed the sport. 1) All the good freshmen never got on campus, and the ones that turned into stars were done after a year. Imagine what college hoops would’ve been if players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady had gone to school for two or three years. There was no more star power. 2) The tournament got out of control. It was always big, and then it took on a life of its own becoming a completely different season and a totally different animal. 3) The field expanded. Suddenly, the weak and sad in the top conferences were finding their way into the field of 65. And finally, 4) the conference tournaments began to mean everything when it came to crowning a champion.

Maybe I'm the wrong person to discuss this because my personal interest in college basketball has waned considerably the last, oh, ten or twelve years or so, thanks in large part to the failures of the latter part of the Dale Brown era and the mediocrity of the John Brady era (excepting a couple of years there). I've given my thoughts before on how Trent Johnson can get LSU fans in particular to pay more attention (sustained winning), but maybe the problems LSU is facing in poor ticket sales and lethargic fan interest is more systemic to college basketball itself, as Fiutak explains.

I'm not sure I buy all these explanations. For instance, I think he's just incorrect about talented freshmen not making it to campus. Sure, there were a few years there when the Tracy McGradys and the Lebron Jameses did not ever enroll in college. That may have sapped some of the interest away from the sport, but from my perspective the bigger problem is not the ones who never made it to college, but the players who were forced to serve a season in purgatory before they'd be allowed to go to the NBA.

The One-Year Mercenary Rule has not been good for college basketball in my opinion. Yes, it has given college basketball the opportunity to showcase players like OJ Mayo and Michael Beasley, who otherwise would have gone straight to the NBA. Those players instantly made their teams better, and once they left their former teams felt their absence.

The problem is the lack of sustainability and the fact that these players don't fit into the high-intensity and the "doing it for the love" storyline that has sold college basketball for decades. People love college sports because the players are young kids who have fallen in love with a school and who will do anything for their teammates. Even if it's a myth, it's an easily sustained myth in many circumstances. These one-year I-know-I'm-going-to-the-NBA-soon players don't fit into that myth at all. They're there to bide their time until the NBA will let them in, and we all know they'd rather be making the big money sitting on the bench for the Golden State Warriors than scoring 20 per game against the Mississippi States of the world. It makes those of us who love college sports for the pure raw emotion of it feel a little dirty, like bringing a ringer into beer league softball.

Fiutak's second point, that the Tournament got out of control, is a good one I think. I've talked before about how the Tournament format and its marketing has tended to make the regular season less and less relevant. No one seems to care about anyone other than their own team until the Tournament rolls around.

But at least the Tournament kills, right? Well, I'm not so sure anymore. The rise of the Tournament has caused people to lose interest in the regular season. But here's the kicker. The decline of the regular season (as a result of the attitude that only the Tournament matters), has resulted in a decline in the Tournament. The madness and hoopla surrounding the Tournament, therefore, has apparently led counterintuitively but inexorably to the decline of the Tournament itself, as seen in television ratings over the last few years until this year.

How can this be? My explanation is thus:

Step 1: people don't watch the regular season because they don't think it's important. They're waiting for the Tournament.

Step 2: the Tournament rolls around, and people discover that they don't know any of these teams or any of these players, because they didn't pay any attention to the regular season.

Step 3: those people don't watch as much as they did in the past, because they aren't as emotionally invested in the end product.

I can only say for sure that this has been how it has worked for me. I have a hard time really caring about any of these teams, and honestly if I didn't have our ATVS Tournament Game, I doubt I'd make a point of paying any attention to the Tournament from here to the end. But that's just me. Maybe it's because I'm a football fan, and my team is no longer in the Tournament.

I don't think Fiutak's solution of reducing the Tournament down to only a handful of teams is the correct way to fix these perceived problems. Whatever happens though, the NCAA needs to figure out how to inject interest into its regular season. Maybe the regular season needs to see a reduction in the number of games played. It seems that every time I make an observation that no one pays attention the regular season, someone points out how each individual game means less than it does in football because there are so many more of them. Explaining the problem does not eliminate the problem. If the problem is too many games, reduce the number of games.

Of course, that will never happen because teams need those home games to get those ticket sales to pay their coaches the high salaries. Except of course that home games against McNeese State add absolutely nothing to the value of a season ticket package, but that's an argument for another day. Reducing the number of games could, if it helps draw more interest to the games that are left, actually increase ticket sales. I'm not sure that's the solution, but I think college basketball definitely needs fixing. Maybe not "saving", but fixing.