Somewhere in the not-too-distant past something fundamental happened to the NCAA tournament. The show became even bigger than the event. Oh, buzzer-beater finishes are still at the heart of it all, but the tournament has become greater than the sum of its parts. As ESPN's Dick Vitale says, it's "jazz, pizzazz and razzmatazz." Right. The NCAAs are no longer just a college tournament but an American television happening.
It's such a phenomenon that even CBS's 30-minute telecast that announces the pairings the Sunday before the tournament begins is a monumental event. Imagine: Tim Brant, a talking head telling us which team got to play Middle Tennessee State, was seen by more viewers than watched all but one regular-season network college game (Louisville vs. Kentucky). The mania is the message.
The tournament is also a broadcaster's dream: a running miniseries that increases in tension day after day and draws viewers from all parts of the country. In a sense, it is what ABC hoped Amerika would be. According to CBS sales vice-president Jerry Dominus, the NCAAs are "like an Amerika that's been filmed in every town in the country. This is as close to grass roots ground swell as it gets."
Of course, there have been many fine tourney moments, but the NCAAs first went show biz in 1981. That was the last year NBC televised it, and on the first weekend, Bryant Gumbel led viewers through a series of fabulous finishes. The tournament's expansion—from 32 teams in 1978 to 48 in '80 and 64 in '85—truly made it a national event in which almost everybody gets a chance. As a result, the tournament can't miss, the way the Super Bowl or the World Series can in off years.
But that's not all there is to the NCAAs. ESPN and CBS deserve credit for engineering this stunning success story. In 1980, ESPN first brought the upsets of the early games to home TV sets. Then CBS gave the event a true beginning, middle and end by inventing the selection show, adding more weeknight telecasts and giving the whole thing the miniseries name of The Road to the Final Four.
It was not surprising, then, that when the contract to televise the tournament came up for renewal last year, the other networks wanted at least a piece of the action. But the NCAA, as well as CBS, knew the value of exclusivity. Dividing the tourney—say, giving the East and Southeast to CBS, the West and Midwest to NBC—would have diluted interest in the overall event. CBS knew that if it kept sole network rights, it would control the marketplace and could force advertisers to meet its price. This allowed CBS to pay the NCAA more for the tournament than any two networks combined could have paid.
The tournament TV rights sold for $1.1 million in 1973. It was worth $16 million annually when CBS took it over in 1982 and $32 million in 1985. Last December, CBS agreed to pay a staggering $55.3 million a year from 1988 through 1990. For its money, CBS gets what amounts to proprietary ownership of the tournament, and it promotes and protects the event shamelessly.
It shouldn't have to. The wonderful thing about the tournament is that it has always been a little innocent and small-townish, a bit wide-eyed and happy to be there, not at all embarrassed to be joyful. It always has drama, lots of new faces, memorable characters and colorful crowds. Altogether, the NCAA tournament is a perfect mix of sports and show biz.