Is Basketball's Quest for Ratings Harming the Game?

Noted sports writer questions motive behind recent rule changes. TELEVISION: POINT OF VIEW

A RULE change last month allowing more fouls and free-throws in American college basketball raised a recurrent question about the impact of television on what it covers. As network newscasters were debating the ethics of airing ``reenactments'' of events their news cameras had missed, sports commentators - including veteran author John Feinstein - were labeling the basketball rule change an effort by TV to jazz up the game for viewers and advertisers at the expense of the sport.

The change affects three well-known NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) leagues: The Big East, with such powerhouse teams as Syracuse, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, and Villanova; the Southeast Conference, which includes perennial contender Kentucky; and the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). The three leagues had applied to the NCAA to allow:

Six fouls per player, instead of five.

Three free-throws, instead of two, if a player is fouled shooting a three-point shot (from anywhere over 19.9 ft. from the basket).

Effective this coming season, the NCAA said yes.

The viewpoint of Mr. Feinstein, whose books include ``Season on the Brink - Bobby Knight'' (Macmillan) and ``Forever's Team'' (Villard Press), helps illuminate the issue:

Monitor: You're saying these rule changes were instituted because of the demands of television?

Feinstein: There is no question. Whenever television promotes a game they always focus on the star players. ... ``Syracuse vs. Georgetown Sunday'': ... ``See Alonzo Mourning battle Billy Owens.'' Or whoever the stars happen to be. Promoters feel that, if you put those stars on the bench [by fouling out], then fewer people will be interested in the game.

Do you disagree?

Well, the case can be made that there are just as many fans who would like to see a good basketball game, and, if you give the underdog team a chance to win while the favored team's star is on the bench, there is much more chance of an upset - and that that is what the game should be striving for, not just having a bunch of stars on the court.

Any compelling examples to support your case?

A couple of years ago Patrick Ewing of Georgetown was the superstar featured against Georgia in a key game to make it into the final four of the NCAA tournament. Early in the first quarter, he picked up his second foul and had to go to the bench. An unknown benchwarmer named Ralph Dalton replaced him and ended up saving the day for Georgetown. If this rule had been in effect then, Ewing never would have come out, and Dalton never would have gotten his place in the limelight, and the fans never would've seen somebody become star-for-a-day.

How else does the six-foul-rule change the game?

It makes it far rougher, obviously. Each player doesn't have to worry so much about hammering his opponent, especially early in the game, when he might ordinarily relax defenses a little. Now there is no compunction in sending him to the [free-throw] line. It makes for less wide-open playing. And it also it makes the game far longer because, when a foul is called, the clock stops, and all the players stand around instead of playing basketball.

Television has already made the game longer by slowing it down with commercials, hasn't it, since NCAA rules for televised games state that 90-second TV timeouts will occur every four minutes during a game in the regular season, and 150-second timeouts every five minutes during tournament games?

Since about 1978, the ``TV-timeout'' has become part of basketball and has changed the game dramatically, by artificially stopping play. Coaches now plan for timeouts routinely instead of using their own. You will often hear commentator's say, ``Coach so-and-so is waiting for the TV-timeout, but I think he needs to take one now.'' Part of the skill of coaching has become knowing if you should take your own timeout or wait for TV to take one.''

Do you feel the three-foul-shot penalty is the outcome of TV pressure to hold viewers?

It follows the pattern of trying to make college basketball more like the [professional] NBA, which traditionally has far higher ratings. Colleges copied the NBA's shot clock after a famous game in 1983 between North Carolina State and Virginia, then ranked 1 and 2 in the country. With 15 minutes left in the game [N.C. State coach] Dean Smith decided to hold the ball. With three of the biggest superstars the game has ever known - Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan, and James Worthy - the whole country tuned in and never got to see them do what they could do. Ratings were low, and the sponsors went nutty.

So college basketball followed the NBA when it instituted the three-point shot, and now this new rule encourages them to shoot it more often?

Exactly. TV loves the three-point shot because it artificially adds excitement on the small screen. It spreads the defenses out over the floor, and rewards a shooting specialist rather than the gifted driver who competes athletically by going to the basket.

Are there other ways in which the scramble for TV attention bends the shape of the game?

You get games televised at all sorts of ridiculous hours because the leagues are so desirous of getting on TV they will do anything. The Ohio Valley Conference went to ESPN and said ESPN could cover their games for free. ESPN said all their time slots were taken. The conference started scheduling midnight-Friday tipoffs to win the contract and the exposure they think they need.

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