The NCAA Tournament

What CBS Gets Wrong About March Madness
The stadium scene.
March 20 2007 12:08 PM

The NCAA Tournament

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I should've guessed that a conversation among an LSU fan, a Syracuse fan, and a Texas fan would soon take a depressing turn. Longhorn fans, let me comfort you by pointing out that LSU never made it past the second round during the Shaquille O'Neal era. After he left, it took the Tigers only 14 years to make the Final Four. So, early congratulations on 2021!

I'm not as jaded about the tourney broadcasts as you are, Bryan. CBS's self-congratulatory coverage—which visually and aurally reinforces the idea that we're bearing witness to The Greatest Sporting Event Ever Created—would feel a lot more like Soviet propaganda if it weren't fundamentally true. What's better, the Super Bowl? The NBA playoffs? The World Series of Pop Culture? And compare it with ESPN, which cranks its hype machine to force-feed viewers ESPN-owned-and-operated entities like the X Games and Arena Football that seem more like Mountain Dew infomercials than sporting events. If the worst you can say about CBS is that they overhype a great event, then they're lapping the competition.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

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What I do find irksome is the network's failure to recognize why the tournament is great. CBS, and everyone who moans that college football needs a playoff, seems to think the greatness is structural—that shoving teams into a grid and watching who shakes out is inherently rewarding. If you think that's the case, I sentence you to three weeks of watching the women's tournament—throwing together a bracket can't add sizzle to a boring product.

The real reason the NCAA Tournament is entertaining is, of course, the content. Major college basketball is a great sport: The games are close and full of violent mood swings, and (as I wrote yesterday) it's obvious that the players sincerely care about winning. But, as Bryan pointed out, CBS often seems less interested in selling college basketball than in reminding us how lucky we are that the tournament is around to enrich our lives. There's a certain hubris in calling the thing March Madness before the games even start, no?

All that said, CBS is on balance a force for good. Every early-round game is broadcast live on the Internet, for free. I love Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery. The other game announcers, save the somnambulant James Brown and past-his-prime Verne Lundquist, are more competent and discerning than the schlubs ESPN and Fox Sports trot out. Compared with one of those NFL pregame hootenannies, the studio show is sedate, tasteful, and mercifully devoid of fake laughing.

Rob is right, though, that the broadcasts lack statistical heft. Now that on-base percentage and the like have become standard on baseball telecasts, the absence of interesting numbers during basketball games seems more glaring. I predict that Billy Packer will openly root against an ACC team before he points out that, despite their low points-per-game totals, Georgetown has the best offense in the country.

Looking ahead to Thursday and Friday … I can't help looking ahead to Saturday and Sunday. The only Sweet 16 matchup I'm particularly sweet on is Ohio State-Tennessee. I've got Ohio State in my bracket, but I think the Vols will win—they have a superstar shooter in Chris Lofton, a bunch of guards who can get in the lane, and an underrated, athletic front line that will have Greg Oden huffing and puffing.

On the other side of the bracket, Florida-Butler and UNLV-Oregon should be fun, but Florida-Oregon will be a whole lot better. Likewise, Kansas-UCLA and North Carolina-Georgetown have the look of classic matchups. Let's just pray that Southern Illinois and Southern Cal don't ruin everything by giving CBS the shining moment it desperately craves.

Over to you, Rob. Now that Albany's gone, which team are you rooting against?