Cinderellas win TV smackdown with pro ballers

It’s March Madness, baby, and television ratings for the upset-filled NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament have been (to paraphrase Dick Vitale) super scintillating sensational! Meanwhile in the NBA — the highest level of basketball — ratings are slightly down, and have been trending down for a while.

Why? It’s not because NCAA players are better…they aren’t. It’s because NCAA games are unpredictable. Every year, the tournament features scores of shocking upsets and unknown players who become “names” overnight — if only for a week or two. The fact that those Cinderella teams and players might never be particularly famous in the long term doesn’t matter to the popularity of the event or its TV appeal. The event and the game are bigger than the stars.

The NBA, on the other hand, heavily promotes individual players, on the theory that people pay to see stars, not necessarily teams. Call it the Michael Jordan effect. This star-oriented approach goes beyond marketing; it has long been understood that referees give big name players preferential treatment. Thus, A-listers like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James consistently have great games, their teams consistently win and they become consistently big draws…or so the thinking goes. While the star system is certainly a tried-and-true formula, I think a lot of fans see it for what it is and are turned off — and are turning their TV sets off as well. To a cynic like me, it’s almost like watching professional wrestling. The NBA’s caste system is particularly annoying if you are a fan of a “no-star” team in a small market city. In effect, the stars have become bigger than the game.

My pipedream du jour would be for Commissioner David Stern to reprioritize the NBA’s approach and once again make the game bigger than the stars. Let surprising new up-and-comers (like the Milwaukee Bucks’ Brandon Jennings and John Salmons) get the same treatment as Kobe, LeBron, DWade and the other marquee names. If that leads to upsets, all the better. That’s exactly why the NCAA tournament became known as “March Madness.” The NBA, too, could be awesome, baby!