In the moments following West Virginia’s win over Oklahoma in an excellent, Big 12 matchup with serious NCAA Tournament implications, I left my TV tuned to Sportscenter. ESPN’s flagship show opened as it always does coming out of a game telecast, with a highlights package and recap of the contest.
The roughly two-minute segment focused exclusively on Oklahoma guard Trae Young — one of the most exciting players in college basketball, to be sure. And he scored 32 points in a losing effort; and emphasis belongs on in a losing effort.
The segment showed exactly two West Virginia highlights. One was of Bob Huggins taking a sip from his water bottle. West Virginia basketball’s official Twitter writing we “might” see Esa Ahmad’s impressive dunk on Sportscenter proved strangely prophetic.
— WVU Basketball (@WVUhoops) February 6, 2018
Among the “highlights” shown in a segment prominently featuring an icon in the left-hand corner that read, “COMING UP: TRAE YOUNG’S NBA DRAFT POTENTIAL”: Sooners teammates missing shots as Young sought his first assist of the game.
As the program cut to a recap of the Detroit Pistons game, I changed channels to ESPN2 and College Basketball Live, just in time for a segment with hosts Jay Williams and Seth Greenberg arguing the best NBA prospect at each position. Much of the discussion was devoted to Michael Porter Jr., who will almost assuredly end his Missouri career without having played a complete college basketball game.
So…am I watching college basketball program, or am I watching NBA? I occupy that demographic that loves both, and recognizes that they are two distinctly different products. Yes, we do exist. I would just appreciate an honest representation of what it is I am watching.
ESPN’s relationship with college basketball has been a topic of growing interest to me this season. Blake Lovell of SoutheastHoops.com offered the below observation from Jan. 13 — the first Saturday after the college football season, when basketball becomes the primary sport on campuses around the nation.
On a day where Trae Young scores 43 points and two top 10 Big 12 teams play a thriller in Lubbock, it feels like there are more than a few suitable replacements for No. 3 here. pic.twitter.com/VRGWXcqADb
— Blake Lovell (@theblakelovell) January 13, 2018
Worth noting in association with this tweet that ESPN sent one of its lead sideline reporters, Jeff Goodman, to Lithuania to cover the LaVar Ball Traveling Circus, just as conference play began around the nation.
Unceasing Ball coverage notwithstanding, ESPN’s approach to college basketball is disappointing. The sport has enjoyed a considerable upswing in quality of play over the past three seasons. The shortening of the shot clock to improve offensive production worked, an extended period for would-be early departures to evaluate their NBA status has led to more players returning and refining their game, and the landscape seems to have collectively corrected to the NBA’s One-and-Done Rule.
The level of play today is the best it’s been since the 1990s, when college basketball was a pillar of ESPN. I owe a considerable portion of my college basketball fandom to ESPN’s coverage of the sport in that decade, which contributes to my disappointment in 2018.
Big Mondays back lived up to the name with marquee matchups from the Big East, Big Ten and Big West/WAC. Super Tuesday wasn’t just the name for the biggest night of the presidential primaries; the weekly showcase of ACC and Big Ten during the college basketball season felt like a major event.
I have fond memories of negotiating with my dad to stay up late for the third leg of the Big Monday tripleheader, wanting to catch a glimpse of the high-flying UNLV Runnin’ Rebels when I was just a second grader. As I got older, the late-night offering featured stars like Keith Van Horn, and Tark The Shark resurfaced at Fresno State.
Ending the third game of the Big Monday tripleheader last decade was one step in the larger scale downsizing of college basketball’s prominence within the ESPN universe. Those telecasts of the 1990s felt like major events because they were presented as such. That ended commensurate with ESPN landing a massive rights deal with the NBA.
Apologies for the cliche, but the Worldwide Leader ditched who brung ’em to the dance. Coincidentally, it was bringing in the Dance that helped ESPN grow. The fledgling network’s coverage of the NCAA Tournament in 1980 — one year after the famed Magic vs. Bird title game brought college basketball to a more prominent, national stage — provided a major boon for both.
The Tournament was relegated to tape delay for years prior to cable television, while ESPN sought legitimate events for its inventory in those early days. It was a win-win, and the two entities grew together. One seemingly outgrew the other.
ESPN dropped plenty of its old programming once Disney brought the network under its umbrella in the 1990s. Long gone are afternoon aerobics shows, Strongman competitions are relegated to stoner hours and the Worldwide Leader hasn’t aired first-run wrestling since its final Global Wrestling Federation broadcast in 1994 — though it would be awesome if ESPN had a wrestling promotion nowadays. But I digress.
College basketball played a much more pivotal role in the network’s growth than Bodies in Motion with Gilad or the AWA. And, despite a dip in quality that plagued it in the latter 2000s and early half of this decade, college basketball remains one of the more popular American sports.
Evaluating the various leagues by tiers, the NFL is in a category all its own, appealing to a huge audience of both die-hards and casual fans. College football occupies the next level, joined by the NBA since its recent surge of popularity.
College hoops may not match any of the current big three. However, the ratings bonanza for the NCAA Tournament alone puts it in a category above the NHL and UFC, both of which appeal almost exclusively to a core, niche audience.
Major League Baseball offers the closest parallel to college basketball at present. Compare the ratings for Big Monday telecasts thus far in 2017 and 2018 to Sunday Night Baseball from this past season, and they’re remarkably similar. Both sports see dramatic upswings in viewership for their championship seasons.
Drawing a parallel to a sport considering rules changes to increase its audience might not be the strongest endorsement in support of more focused coverage for college basketball. It does point to the larger issue, however: Broadcasters are trying to appeal to a broader, casual demographic, and doing so sometimes comes at the expense of the core audience.