Three years ago, as Thanksgiving weekend kicked off in sports, all eyes were on college basketball.
The 2018 Maui Invitational final between a Zion Williamson–led Duke and Gonzaga was incredible, particularly for a sport that sometimes gets overshadowed by the NFL and the end of the college football season in November. It tipped off at 5 p.m. ET on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and lived up to the hype of a game between two elite teams. Williamson continued his introduction to the world with 22 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, but Gonzaga held off a Duke comeback to win, 89–87.
It was a thriller played in front of a raucous Maui crowd and a massive television audience—one of the largest in Maui history. But despite another high-profile matchup on the docket for this Feast Week, that level of national buzz will be hard to replicate … and not just because Zion won’t be suiting up for either team.
The first few weeks of the new men’s college basketball season have given hoops fans plenty of marquee matchups, with none bigger than Tuesday’s Final Four rematch between Gonzaga and UCLA. Their battle in early April was one of the most memorable games in recent college hoops history, and nearly 15 million fans watched from home. Perhaps most importantly for a sport that often has to introduce fans to new stars every year, several of the most recognizable faces from that game are back. While Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert are gone for Gonzaga, Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard returned to school. Meanwhile, UCLA brings back every relevant player from last year’s team, including Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell.
Everything about this clash should make this the event of the regular season for the sport, an opportunity to engage not just its diehards but also the casual fans that lock in every March. It’s a battle between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the AP poll in a rematch of a historic game, with stars on both sides that even casual fans recognize, featuring two of the bigger brand-name programs in the sport. This game should be as big, if not even bigger than that Duke-Gonzaga clash three years ago. Unfortunately, its tip-off time will likely hold it back.
Gonzaga–UCLA tips off at 10 p.m. ET on a Tuesday night. It will likely finish after midnight on the East Coast. There’s little doubt that a start time that late will impact the game’s reach … and before I’m accused of East Coast bias, remember that nearly 50% of the nation’s population lives in the Eastern time zone. And while I’m sympathetic to the fact that this is a game between two West Coast teams being played in Las Vegas, the late start is part of a less-than-ideal trend to start this season of high-profile games being placed in time slots and on TV channels that inhibit the sport’s exposure.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this was the Villanova-UCLA meeting on Friday of the sport’s opening week. A battle of two top-five teams with recognizable faces all over the court tipped off at 11:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2. A regular-season NBA doubleheader held it down on ESPN, while college football and Concacaf soccer took up ESPN2 until 11:30. The result? A thrilling game that could have kept fans tuning in for college hoops games all season felt like a hidden gem. By the time UCLA finally secured a huge overtime win, it was nearly 2 a.m. on the East Coast.
The next night, Texas and Gonzaga faced off in Spokane in another top-five clash. That game, the first high-profile one of 2021 No. 1 recruit Chet Holmgren’s career and the biggest early test for new coach Chris Beard at Texas, did at least make ESPN … at 10:30 p.m. ET. The first half was overshadowed by Texas football, of all things, as the Longhorns’ historic home loss to Kansas went final just as the second half of hoops tipped off in Spokane.
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This past weekend’s Hall of Fame Tip-Off, featuring four ranked teams, provided yet another showcase opportunity for the sport. Its reward? Being buried on ESPNNews on a college football Saturday. And on the day after Thanksgiving—traditionally a big day for college sports—a top-five Gonzaga-Duke matchup that pits likely future NBA stars Holmgren and Paolo Banchero will tip at 10:30 p.m. ET.
There’s not one specific person or company to blame for these bad game times and channels. ESPN owns the broadcast rights and has plenty of say as to when these games are played, but the college hoops schedule is incredibly complex and made even more complicated by the number of event companies involved in putting on big games like Gonzaga-UCLA on neutral courts.
And of course, college basketball doesn’t exist in a vacuum. November is a busy sports month, and it’s not realistic that even the best NCAA hoops games will get perfect television exposure. But if college basketball wants to shed the label of niche sport that fans don’t care about until March and start to engage fans throughout a full season, it needs its biggest games in November and December to be put on the biggest possible stage.
A game like Tuesday’s between Gonzaga and UCLA deserves a March-sized audience. And while that’s nowhere near realistic (that 2018 Duke-Gonzaga Maui game had 2.3 million viewers, compared to nearly 15 million who watched Suggs’s buzzer beater sink the Bruins eight months ago), every eyeball that college hoops can get early in the season is a win. Unfortunately, this late-night tip on the East Coast likely means a game that could have had a massive impact on the sport’s yearlong visibility will have a far more niche audience than it should.
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