As March Madness tips off, there are still pending lawsuits and ongoing investigations with some of the sport's biggest teams and figures. How will CBS handle the scandals?
Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.
Basketball royalty UNC, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas have made more Final Four appearances than anyone else, as you’d expect. But next on the list, if it were a school, VACATED would be nipping at the Jayhawks’ heels with 13 banners. Put another way: there’s a five-seed’s chance that another asterisk could be added to the record books this month.
That’s just how it goes. This is March, when courtroom drama can be as impactful as on-court action. And in the 80th NCAA tournament, talk of suits, scandals, and suspensions will get a jump on any bracket-busting buzzer beaters.
The Louisville Courier Journal perfectly previewed Thursday’s 12:15 p.m. ET opener after the bracket was unveiled.
“As if determined to call attention to a bad breakup, a pending lawsuit, an ongoing investigation and an embittered coach unable to find work in his own country, the NCAA tournament’s Selection Committee has paired the University of Louisville and Richard Pitino’s Minnesota Gophers in the first round of its men’s basketball tournament Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.”
Oh, also some students will play five-on-five hoops in a 7 vs. 10 seed matchup. The subtext there, in case you missed it, revolves around Rick Pitino, Richard’s father, who coached the Cardinals from 2001–17. He was fired after a string of scandals, separately featuring an alleged affair, prostitutes, and money possibly funneled to a recruit. He’s now suing the school for $35 million and coaching in Greece. The University countersued.
Jay Bilas recently criticized the committee for pairing the teams together in the first round. As for how the game ended up as the round opener, the 16 Thursday games are slotted based on a series of criteria, ranging from site needs to making sure teams from the same area aren’t playing at overlapping times.
Because of that process, Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner, Dana Jacobson will have to juggle the excitement of the first round tipping off with the Pitino subplot as well as whatever develops in the actual game.
The day’s second broadcast team—Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel and Jamie Erdahl—will face a similar task when No. 14 Yale and No. 3 LSU play in Jacksonville. Tigers coach Will Wade remains suspended as the school conducts an internal investigation into his connection to the FBI imbroglio that took down Pitino. Yahoo! previously reported that the bureau recorded Wade discussing a recruit with agent Christian Dawkins, who has already been sentenced to six months in prison by a federal judge. (Speaking of the FBI, Yale’s basketball team isn’t involved, but the school’s women’s soccer coach was charged in the recent admissions scandal that you’ve certainly heard about.)
The third game of the day brings more Law & Order intrigue as No. 5 Auburn takes the floor for the first time since ex-assistant Chuck Person pled guilty to a bribery conspiracy charge after being accused of receiving $91,500 to direct players to a certain financial adviser. Andrew Catalon, Steve Lappas, and Lisa Byington have that game.
Last week, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus was asked how his network would handle the scandals. “We’re not going to over-cover it,” he said. “People generally are tuning in to see basketball games…. We’re not going to ignore the stories that are out there, we’re just not going to focus on them too intently either.”
NCAA scandals are often handled differently in-game than they would be in the pros. Casual fans tune into college contests for inspiration and excitement, watching students play the biggest games of their lives, but often don’t engage year-round in discussions about the health of the leagues and the game. Therefore, announcers balance making viewers aware of relevant controversies (Wait, why isn’t LSU’s coach there?) without disrupting the reason people tuned in originally. Criminals (and sometimes the NCAA itself) might be sullying the sport, but that doesn’t mean they have to ruin the moment too. March Madness offers enough intrigue that broadcasters don’t have to sell the controversy anyway.
Around the games, though, the uproar continues, especially as courts weigh in. Most recently, it was Dick Vitale notably speaking out. “Take a look at Zion,” he told Esquire. “Why shouldn't he play and get paid? It's a cesspool—guys hustling kids, hustling dollars…. Let's face it. You've got coaches getting fired for taking bribes, or to make believe and lie on an application that the kid's an athlete. It's a cesspool! And it's just ridiculous and absurd.”
Inevitably, the outcry will quiet over the coming weeks as we become overcome by outcomes. Cinderellas will emerge; hopefully as clean as any NCAA program can be these days. Nets will be cut. On April 8, One Moment will Shine.
Two weeks later, a federal bribery case is slated for trial. Dawkins is a defendant. Wade could be called as a witness. It’ll be time to talk.
What the Newest ESPN+ Deal Means for the UFC
Starting with UFC 236 on April 13, fight fans will need to own an ESPN+ subscription to buy pay-per-view events (which will cost $5 less at $59.99). The announcement came Monday, a couple months after the sport’s linear TV and digital shows moved to ESPN properties.
“ESPN has all the big [sports] properties . . . and the fan is accustomed to waking up and watching SportsCenter or going on ESPN.com,” Dana White told The Washington Post. “We’ve aligned the fan, and now there’s no mystery about where to find UFC. It’s all housed in one home.
In exchange for pulling the pay-per-views from cable providers, UFC will get a bigger marketing push from ESPN (similar to the benefits phone makers receive for making a product exclusive to a network) as well as better data on its viewers.
“That was one of the biggest frustrations we had with the previous ecosystem,” UFC COO Lawrence Epstein said Wednesday. “We got virtually no information at all.” Now, he’s eager to see how events sell differently by region, which athletes resonate with which populations, how female athletes might change the dynamics, and more. The information will help the company plan events and sell tickets more efficiently.
On the flipside, media watchers will lose out as the number of pay-per-view buyers will become much harder to track. Epstein said it was ESPN that first proposed the new deal about a month into their nascent partnership, and that the network had some flexibility to set pricing as it saw fit.
• ESPN and the AAC have agreed to a 12-year, $1 billion deal.
• Robin Roberts will join the College GameDay crew on ABC’s NFL Draft presentation.
• MLB.TV will be available through Amazon’s video platform.
• Will Ferrell is reviving his Anchorman character for Thursday’s Kings-Sharks game.