Sunday, March 19, 2006

HOOPS ON CBS: 25 YEARS

The period between the end of the football season and the beginning of baseball season has traditionally been a black hole of sorts for these TV networks, looking for something to fill the airspace for the sports fans out there.

Fall is usually the prime season for sports on TV. FOX has baseball and the NFL. CBS has college and pro football. ABC basically owns college football on Saturdays and has plenty of auto racing on Sundays. NBC has Notre Dame football and the NASCAR "Chase" (soon moving to ABC) and will soon have the NFL on Sunday nights.

Then football season ends and the scrambling begins. NBC, which used to run NBA games on the weekends until it lost those rights to ABC, now has a pathetic weekend lineup consisting of Arena Football and plenty of golf. ABC makes do with the NBA and college basketball. FOX has been very successful with its popular and growing NASCAR franchise in recent years, but the people who've done best of all have been the folks at CBS, with March Madness. Their NCAA tournament coverage creams everyone on weekends and has the added advantage of being sudden-death thrilling matchups, played in noisy arenas filled with crazed, boisterous fans.

Just today, CBS Sports absolutely killed Fox Sports. The NASCAR race in Atlanta was rained out. So all the race fans who loved to see Darrell Waltrip say "boogity boogity boogity" on TV had no choice but to switch the dial to CBS to see George Mason beat North Carolina, and see UConn and Villanova hang on against tough opposition, and watch these other no-name schools from unknown conferences keep it close or beat these other big name teams. ABC did their best; they served up an NBA game from Cleveland featuring LeBron James, who of course didn't bother with college at all and probably is still old enough to play in the NCAA. In fact, his game versus the Lakers was probably the best game of the day and the players there all had more talent; it went down to the final shot, but nobody out there cares who won because it's the boring NBA regular season. They're all watching the NCAAs.

Hard to believe that CBS Sports has covered the NCAA tournament for 25 years now. I gotta say, their NCAA basketball coverage has been a cornerstone of the network. It lifted CBS Sports from the doldrums in the 1980s and made the sports division a player. It was also literally the only decent property left on the network during a period in the mid-90s when CBS Sports lost the baseball, NFL and NBA contracts to rival networks. The NCAA rights have been the rock of the Black Rock sports lineup.

When CBS first got the rights to the NCAA tournament back in 1982, it was major news. They took the rights away from NBC Sports which had the legendary team of Dick Enberg, Billy Packer and Al McGuire doing the games. In those days NBC had the rights to virtually all the sports- they had baseball and football, and most of the big college bowl games, so this was major news. ABC Sports had some good weekend properties as well, such as college football. But their lineup had a lot of dreck, too, like the videotaped SuperStars series plus the mainstay Wide World of Sports which was boring as all heck most of the time.

In his book The Game Behind the Game, Terry O'Neil recounted how Van Gordon Sauter, then head of CBS Sports, reacted when he saw how CBS' pathetic NBA games did against the just-as-bad ABC lineup. O'Neil was a big proponent of grabbing the NCAA hoops rights in order to liven up the dull CBS lineup. In those days the NBA was in deep doldrums, playing to bored crowds in half-empty arenas. Nobody cared about these bums.

The ABC lineup was getting twice the ratings of the CBS efforts. "Twice and then some," Van Sauter told O'Neil. "9.1 for the videotaped f--king SuperStars, 12.3 for the Wide World of f--king Sports! That settles it! I want those f--king college kids, those f--king cheerleaders! I want some f--king lung power!!!"

Sauter gave O'Neil the green light to go after the NCAA tourney rights and to spend the huge amount of money they needed in order to steal the rights away from NBC. The rest is history.

Ultimately, the interest in the NCAA helped revive the fortunes of the NBA; people would tune in to the NBA games on CBS to see the NCAA heroes who had joined the league, people like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. So CBS Sports did very well with its heavy coverage of basketball in those days. Once March Madness was over, they moved quickly into high gear with their NBA playoff coverage. The NBA became a hot property again and were stolen away by NBC, and later swiped by ABC. They had the NCAAs to thank for that.

The best thing about the CBS coverage of the NCAA hoops tournament has been that it has forced these networks to improve the quality of their sports programming on weekends between the football and baseball seasons. They actually put an effort into it these days. You see a big effort by Fox Sports with their NASCAR coverage and a big effort from ABC for the NBA. So the quality has improved across the board, especially in recent years.

Now you can tune into sports on weekends and actually see productions that you care about. You no longer feel so down in the dumps because football season is over, there's actually something decent to watch in February and March. It's a lot better than it used to be.

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