Follow the bouncing ball

Upsets, teams key to NCAA success

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CBS executives gathered the media Tuesday at its Midtown Manhattan headquarters to talk about the plans for its three-week men's college basketball extravaganza that tips off next week.

"We just want as many close games as possible," CBS Sports executive producer Tony Petitti said when asked what he looked to most to drive ratings.

If only it were that simple.

The ratings for the telecasts during the past few years indicate that while buzzer beaters and overtime games are one factor, they're hardly the only -- or even the most significant -- determinant of viewership for CBS.

Instead, research shows that a combination of region, history and the all-important upset play critical roles.

The stakes this year are high for the network, which has seen ratings for the men's Division I tourney decline 12% during the past three years. Last year brought an average 6.1 rating for all games, the second-lowest rating in the 25-year history of CBS televising the tournament. (The lowest came when the tourney coincided with the start of the Iraq War in 2003.)

That's not insignificant for the Leslie Moonves conglomerate, which pays a pricey average of $545 million for the tournament in a deal that expires in 2013.

So what will CBS be crossing its fingers for in 2008?

While executives tend to look at two large and relatively obvious factors for postseasons in, say, the NBA or Major League Baseball -- the length of each series and the market size of the teams involved -- the NCAA hoops tourney is a more complicated affair.

Region plays a role, but not always in the way you'd think. While many of the so-called major conferences draw well, not all, it turns out, are created equal.

When the Big Ten and ACC have strong tournaments, the numbers go through the roof. In 2005, when the tournament had its highest ratings of the past 10 years, four teams from those conferences made the Elite Eight, and both of the finals teams came from those conferences. Last year's record-low numbers? Only two teams from those conferences made the Elite Eight.

This year, CBS executives could be biting their nails nervously when the brackets are announced Sunday. The number of potential ACC teams could double -- or stay at a relatively paltry number. Three teams (Duke, Clemson and North Carolina) are expected to get in. But Miami, Virginia Tech and Maryland are perceived to be on the bubble; whether they get in could have a significant impact on viewership.



Meanwhile, upsets might be an even more important factor.

Although the media and the public tend to love upsets -- the Cinderella run of George Mason two years ago is a notable example -- too many upsets (defined here as a team beating an opponent at least two seeds higher) can sink ratings, too.

Last year's low ratings were for a tournament marked by just four upsets, the fewest in a long time. But in 2006, when average ratings were at a 6.3 and almost as low, the tournament saw the other extreme: 14 upsets.

It turns out there's a golden mean of upsets; if they're too low or too high, ratings drop. Fans want Cinderellas, but only a few. "You want enough upsets that it doesn't get predictable, but not so many that it becomes a jumble," one TV executive said. Indeed, three years ago, when upsets were at a middle-of-the-curve 10, ratings were strong. Ditto for six years ago, when there were 11 upsets.

There are quantifiable bright spots for CBS. On Tuesday, executives said that advertising revenue is on the upswing. CBS Sports expects $450 million in revenue from TV advertising this year, up 12% from last year. And CPM increases average in the low double digits, according to CBS Sports ad chief John Bogusz, with the average 30-second spot in the championship costing $1.4 million.

Observers also note that the factors have to be looked at in context. "These are long-term plays," sports consultant Neal Pilson said. "You can look at what happens in a given year, but advertisers buy multiyear packages and networks sign on for the long haul. A smart network can weather a lot of trends."
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