The preeminent championship in American sports? The World Series perhaps, or maybe the Super Bowl. Both can certainly stake a claim, but so too can the men's college basketball tournament, which has made a Kentucky Derby-like charge during the last 10 or 15 years.
Leslie Anne Wade, a spokeswoman for CBS Sports, reports that 46 million people viewed last year's network coverage of the championship game and a like number are expected for Monday's Final Four wrap-up in Indianapolis's RCA Dome. (The winners of Saturday's North Carolina-vs.-Arizona and Minnesota-vs.-Kentucky semifinal doubleheader, at 5:42 p.m. (EST), will advance to Monday evening's 9:12 p.m. (EST) tipoff.)
The viewership for the final pales next to the 128 million who tuned in January's Super Bowl, a magnet for borderline partygoing fans and overseas audiences. Yet the men's National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament is in the same ballpark when its 63 games are taken as a whole (118.1 million watched in '96).
On the ratings scoreboard (each point representing 970,000 households) it looks like this: 1997 Super Bowl (43), 1996 World Series (22.2), 1996 Final Four (18.3), and 1996 National Basketball Association championship series (16.7).
Number crunching aside, the men's college basketball tournament (and the women's too; see story below) is considered a jewel of increasing brilliance by serious sports followers.
Eric Nager, a Boston sports fan, says that the tournament has moved up in his estimation, while the traditional Big Two have slipped. "There have been too many blowouts in the Super Bowl, and the [player] strikes have taken a little of the luster off the World Series," he observes. "March Madness [as the three-week NCAA tournament is known] may well be it. I like the emotion and unpredictability of it - the fact that the little guy has a chance. The bands, the fans."
John Feinstein, a freelance sportswriter and noted book author based in Maryland, acknowledges that the NCAA tournament with its Final Four finale has probably been the most upwardly mobile event in the eyes of the American public. "I think the Final Four has reached a level now," he says, "that it can be mentioned in the same sentence with the World Series and the Super Bowl in terms of television ratings, media coverage, in terms of it being a 'tough ticket,' and, unfortunately, in terms of corporate involvement."
Public tickets to this year's Final Four were snapped up a year ago via the annual lottery. Fourteen thousand, however, were held back for the fans of the competing schools, while thousands more are earmarked for coaches, other NCAA schools, and corporate sponsors.
Ducats to the "Big Dance" are much prized, for unlike the Super Bowl, with its reputation for dud games, the Final Four has produced numerous down-to-the-wire finishes, including a run of seven games during eight years in the 1980s when the margin of victory was never greater than four points.
This year's Final Four boasts two bluebloods on the marquee: Kentucky, a six-time national champion, and North Carolina, a three-time winner. Kentucky's defending champions lost a handful of key players off last year's squad, but the reservoir of talent is so deep that the Wildcats (34-4) hope to join Duke as the only other repeat winner since UCLA in 1973.
After a slow start to its season, North Carolina (28-6) has come on strong to help Dean Smith surpass Kentucky's late Adolph Rupp as the nation's winningest college basketball coach. Carolina enjoyed the easiest path to the Final Four and now must play an Arizona squad (23-9) that beat the Tar Heels in their opening game last November and upset top-ranked Kansas in the Southeast Regional. Arizona starts nary a senior, but has a coach, Lute Olson, who knows the routine (this is his fourth Final Four).
Oddly, the best record among the Indy-bound belongs to Minnesota (31-3), which is making its first trip to the Final Four. Guard Bobby Jackson got a taste of Golden Gopher mania recently when he spent two hours signing autographs while buying shoes in the Mall of America.
So what is the appeal of the Final Four, which CBS's Leslie Anne Wade says is the "absolute favorite project" for the networks sports staff to cover? Partly it's the challenge, she says, and partly the event's energy and drama.
Billy Packer, CBS's leading basketball analyst, has worked the Final Four going back to 1975. He calls the tournament "the perfect vehicle for television. Games fit a nice two-hour time block and there's an appropriate championship path, in which you've got 64 teams, then 32, 16, eight, four, and two."
CBS is paying the NCAA $1.725 billion for broadcast rights through 2002. Despite this commitment, Packer says that neither CBS, nor NBC before it, got in the way of the tournament's natural evolution. "If you had to look at any one thing that has made this grow it is the fact that it didn't grow by promotion or hype," Packer says. "It's not overly promoted. It's not bells and whistles."
Bob Frederick, the athletic director at the University of Kansas and the tournament chairman in 1995 and '96, credits ESPN's coverage with building national interest.
"I think a lot of it was the result of ESPN's coverage of first- and second-round games in the mid 1980s," Frederick says. "A 16th seed might be ahead of a No. 1 seed, and ESPN would be switching back and forth between that and other games."
Before this, viewers generally missed what Bill Hancock, the director of this year's championship, calls his favorite part of the tournament.
"The first weekend is when it's a common person's event," he says. "You can get a ticket, there are 64 teams, nobody has lost yet, and every school thinks it can win the national championship."
The fact is, Cinderellas seldom make it to the Final Four, but the expansion of the tournament field from 48 to 64 teams in the 1980s introduced greater potential for upsets along the way. Every year, there are at least a handful of long-shots, such as Tennessee-Chattanooga and Coppin State this time, overturning apple carts.
Tournament director Bill Hancock says the expanded field "has brought the tournament closer to more parts of the country. Within a half a day's drive of every place in the country there's some team that has a chance to get in the tournament, and a real good chance."
Each year, Hancock says, 60 to 65 cities line up to bid for the privilege of hosting early-round games at eight locations. Teams often play out of their area, but doing so doesn't seem to hurt attendance.
"People in the host cities realize this is a big event and they need to be there," he explains, adding that alumni networks help to generate interest among far-flung graduates. Last year, the average attendance at 34 tournament sessions was 18,920, a figure achieved without a domed-stadium Final Four (see related story, right).
The tournament's drama, observers agree, is largely due to the tension-packed, single-elimination format, which creates suspense and makes for a more compact postseason than the pro playoffs, which end in June.
March Madness benefits from filling a lull on the sports calendar and the NCAA's decision to switch the final from Saturday to Monday night starting in 1973 was important in gaining prime-time exposure.
After last year's tournament, a number of top underclassmen left school to turn pro. Some observers felt this might dim the event's popularity. Kansas's Bob Frederick, however, is convinced "there's just as much excitement for this year's tournament as there's ever been. Besides, we're about teams, not about individuals. That's the good thing about college athletics."