12:01am

Wed March 28, 2012
Sweetness And Light

Watching College Basketball's Slump Into Anonymity

Originally published on Wed March 28, 2012 10:31 am

This year's Final Four seems more like Best in Show at the Westminster. Such pedigree: Kentucky, Kansas, Ohio State and Louisville –– four of the very top dogs in the history of the sport. Well, it's a Meryl Streep kind of year, isn't it?

But if the Final Four might delight fans by giving them aristocracy in its teams, unfortunately the whole of college basketball is plagued by anonymity in its players, and external issues that have diminished the popularity of the game.

Good grief. This year, there has been more buzz about Mad Men than about March Madness.

Even the goofy students at Duke have stopped jamming little Cameron Indoor Stadium. And when the Dookies are losing interest in hoops, that's a clue that even Inspector Clouseau can't stumble past.

The dispiriting fact is that attendance for the college game keeps declining, both throughout the regular season and during the NCAA tournament.

So much of the problem is external: the competition. As the violent game of football grows more popular and its season extends longer into winter, all hoops are squeezed. College basketball doesn't seem like a season anymore. It's more like a spring break.

There's even talk now of not scheduling college basketball till after the New Year, running March Madness all through April. Seems like a good idea.

But because NCAA tournament games must be scheduled at the last minute, at stale, neutral sites that seem to be as far away as Bulgaria or Sri Lanka, it means that, like the Olympics, March Madness is more and more just a TV show.

However, unlike other competition-style TV programs like Dancing with the Stars, and unlike other sports, March Madness is at its greatest disadvantage now because you don't get to know the characters. The brightest stars leave for the NBA after a year –– "one and done" –– just when they're beginning to attract interest.

There's so little identity or continuity, and basketball is the most personality-driven team sport. It's especially revealing that the biggest fuss made about March Madness is about the brackets. And essentially, filling out a 68-team bracket has as much to do with sport as does buying a lottery ticket.

It's representative of the whole situation that, for the Final Four, Kentucky is the huge favorite — because the Wildcats are a transient team made up mostly of freshmen who'll be gone next year, off to the NBA.

Can we really say that the "C" in NCAA stands for "Collegiate," if virtually a whole team doesn't spend much time in college? Let us say that, more correctly, the NCAA is now the National CBS Athletic Association.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Finally it's Final Four weekend coming up and scores of college basketball fans are going to be glued to their televisions. Saturday's game will decide which two schools face-off for the men's basketball championship.

Commentator Frank Deford will be tuned in. But he also understands why some fans have tuned out.

FRANK DEFORD: This year's Final Four seems more like Best in Show at the Westminster. Such pedigree: Kentucky, Kansas, Ohio State and Louisville four of the very top dogs in the history of the sport. Well, it's a Meryl Streep kind of year, isn't it?

But if the Final Four might delight fans by giving them aristocracy in its teams, unfortunately the whole of college basketball is plagued by anonymity in its players and external issues which have diminished the popularity of the game. Good grief, this year, there's been more buzz about "Mad Men" than March Madness. Even the goofy students at Duke have stopped jamming little Cameron Indoor Stadium, and when the Dookies are losing interest in hoops, it's a clue even Inspector Clouseau can't stumble past.

The dispiriting fact is that attendance for the college game keeps declining throughout both the regular season and during the NCAA tournament. So much of the problem is external: the competition. As the violent game of football grows more popular and its season extends longer into winter, all hoops are squeezed.

College basketball doesn't seem like a season anymore. It's more like a spring break. There's even talk, now, of not scheduling college basketball 'til after the New Year, running March Madness all through April. Seems like a good idea.

But because NCAA tournament games must be scheduled at the last minute at stale neutral sites, that seem to be as far away as Bulgaria or Sri Lanka, it means that, like the Olympics, March Madness is, more and more, just a TV show.

However, unlike other competition-style TV programs, like "Dancing With The Stars," and unlike other sports, March Madness is at its greatest disadvantage now because you don't get to know the characters. The brightest stars leave for the NBA after a year - one and done - just when they're beginning to attract interest. There's so little identity or continuity and basketball is the most personality-driven team sport.

It's especially revealing that the biggest fuss made about March Madness are the brackets. And essentially, filling out a 68-team bracket has as much to do with sport as does buying a lottery ticket. It's representative of the whole situation that, for the Final Four, Kentucky is the huge favorite, because the Wildcats are a transient team made up mostly of freshmen who'll be gone next year, off to the NBA.

Can we really say that that C in the NCAA stands for Collegiate, if virtually a whole team doesn't spend much time in college? Let us say that, more correctly, the NCAA is now the National CBS Athletic Association.

GREENE: Some teams may be one and done, never Frank Deford. He joins us each Wednesday.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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