On the heels of an incredibly dramatic, high-level championship game, the timing to discuss the demise of college basketball is less than ideal. Yet, here we are.
Attendance numbers have been declining for seven straight years. TV ratings have taken a nosedive. The future top NBA picks are no longer household names, and the game itself seems relegated to arouse only the interest of alums and degenerate gamblers. College basketball is not part of the sports discourse anymore. Let’s examine the five main reasons behind the demise:
1. One And Done
“We ain’t here to play school.” The brutally honest declaration, courtesy of then-third string quarterback for The Ohio State Buckeyes, Cardale Jones, rings true and perhaps applies more to college basketball. The dedication and devotion to a program is much tougher to muster knowing that you have to go through the motions for only one season. For the top blue-chip recruits, attending a university and playing a single season of college hoops has become somewhat of a charade. Latest case in point is Ben Simmons, the Australian stud who was part of a miserable program at LSU. Coming in to the season, Simmons was projected as the top overall pick in this year’s draft. Failing to even qualify for the NCAA tournament and essentially having a worst-case scenario “one and done” season, Simmons is still projected as one of the top two picks.
Unless paired up with many other one-and-dones (Kentucky) or surrounded by upperclassmen talent and elite coaching (Duke), the one-and-dones are not exactly enhancing the general interest level in the game. Their 100 days of college are quickly forgotten, fodder for radio sports talk noise on “how to fix the game”.
2. Too Many Games
Look, you want to have the Great Alaska shootouts, the Maui Invitationals, hoops on cruise ships and battleships – something will have to give. At some point the public will see past all the gimmicks and become satiated with all the watered down, non-conference play. In the mid-90s heydays of college roundball, the top 10 teams played somewhere between 30 and 33 games. Fast forward to the current TV-deals driven era and we are looking at 36-40 games. This 20 percent increase in the number of games, in conjunction with all the competing sports content on television has taken college basketball past its tipping point. Division I games attendance is down over the last seven years. This past weekend’s Final Four TV ratings were down 43 percent and 31 percent respectively over 2015.
Cue Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin”.
Garnering a strong following in the December through February regular season months is even more difficult when the target audience realizes that win or lose the only games that truly matter take place in March, and chances are that the team(s) they root for will count themselves among the 68 schools headed to the Big Dance.
3. The Death Of Big Time Rivalries
Conference realignments. Chalk another win to the NCAA. Better TV deals, more games, more money, everybody (but the players) wins. Well, not exactly.
By selling their soul for TV money, the powerhouse programs have made a conscious decision to eliminate the traditional rivalries from the game. The icing on the cake was the recent Big East realignment. Young fans of the game will never know what a Georgetown/Syracuse rivalry feels like, there will be no six OT thrillers between two national powerhouses like UConn and Syracuse in conference play. Instead, we now have a January battle royale between UConn and UCF in the newly-minted American Athletic Conference.
The reasons for realignment are complex and perhaps justified, but the main consequence is that The Game has lost a significant part of its identity and in the process has deprived fans of tradition and the aura of big games.