“March Madness,” the advertising slogan that CBS gives to its broadcasts of the NCAA basketball playoffs, is over for another year. This is big business for CBS. In 2003, the network signed a contract with the NCAA for $6 billion for an 11-year contract.
CBS, which has televised the NCAA men’s basketball championship since 1982, acquired all television and radio rights to the tournament, including over-the-air broadcasting, cable television, satellite, digital and home video.
Despite getting the cable rights, CBS said it has no plans to move the men’s tournament games off of network television.
“We didn’t pay this kind of money to farm it out,” said Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive officer of CBS Television. “For us, the Final Four may be the greatest sporting event of the year.” For those of us who have been college basketball fans since the era before UCLA, this is an amazing phenomenon. It represents a transformation of American culture that was inconceivable four decades ago. There was a time when only football was a serious contender for college sports fame. There was also a time when college sports did not offer such financial potential to colleges that they would systematically debase academic requirements in order to recruit athletes who were not capable of graduating.
Three decades ago, free market economist Ben Rogge [ROWEguee] accurately identified the economics of the NCAA: a legalized cartel that wants to keep down the price of its primary commodity, namely, athletic talent. The NCAA’s rules are designed to limit what is paid to athletes to come and play for universities that hope to generate lots of money. Universities make their money on sports by means of the spread between the price paid to athletes and the revenue generated by them. This revenue used to be based primarily on old grads’ donations. It still is for minor league academic teams: those not in NCAA Division-1. But for the NCAA Division-1 universities today, a lot of their revenue comes from the network revenues generated from commercial advertising.
The NCAA cartel justifies its unique legal status based on academia’s non-profit legal status. Officially, higher education is designed to make the world a better place through formal education. Legislatures are filled with representatives who want to hold down education costs. They also want bragging rights when their alma maters win an NCAA championship. So, they join with the university administrations to exempt higher education from anti-trust action. The fig leaf for this exemption is the myth of student athletes as unpaid amateurs. If you want to see a movie on this myth, rent Blue Chips. (Note: for basketball buffs, this movie includes an exchange between Nick Nolte and Bob Cousy, where Cousy, now an old man — sad to say — gives a demonstration of free throwing skills that leads Nolte the actor to exclaim, obviously unscripted, “Don’t you ever miss?”)
MY, HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED
There was a time when NCAA basketball was not televised. This may be difficult to believe for younger readers
In 1961, I very much wanted to see the NCAA finals. This was the Ohio showdown between Ohio State and Cincinnati. In the late 1950’s and in 1960, Cincinnati had come close to winning the NCAA when it had the great forward, Oscar Robertson, but had not quite made the grade. Now it had a no-name team that had made it to the finals. Facing them was an undefeated Ohio State team, the reigning NCAA champion, which starred Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek. The year before, Ohio State had blown off the court the reigning NCAA champion, California.
I had seen the Cal-Ohio State game in 1960 because Cal was a California team. The game had been broadcast in Los Angeles. Cal in 1959 had defeated West Virginia, which had the great Jerry West as its forward, by one point. (West is the model for the NBA’s logo.) The night before, Cal had defeated Cincinnati and Robertson. Cal was the last team to win an NCAA championship that relied exclusively on defense, although Cincinnati in 1961 and 1962 was defense-oriented. Cal was a supremely boring team to watch, but it won games. I am not 100% sure about this, but as I recall, the 1959 final game was played by two teams with all-white starting line-ups. In those days, basketball was a mostly a white man’s game.
In 1961, no local TV station broadcast the final game. This was the Los Angeles market, which was huge. NBC instead broadcast “Timex Circus” with Joe E. Brown, a minor Hollywood comic of the 1930’s. This has stuck in my memory for over four decades. I still find it difficult to believe. Cincinnati won in overtime. In 1962, the same two teams ended in the finals. Cincinnati won again.
I saw that game. In 1962, John Wooden’s UCLA team made it to the final four for the first time. The team lost in the semi-final game to Cincinnati in the final seconds because of a disputed charging violation on sophomore guard Walt Hazard. The game was broadcast by a local independent TV station. No local network station wanted to broadcast the UCLA game because the NCAA had imposed a restriction: the local station would have to broadcast the final game, even if UCLA lost in the semi-finals, which it did. That restriction was considered onerous. “What? We have to broadcast the NCAA final game even if the local team loses? Are you people crazy?”
In 1963, a local station did broadcast the final game in Los Angeles. I don’t recall if it was a network station. Cincinnati was in the final game for the third time. It had a chance to become the first team in NCAA basketball history to win a third consecutive title. It lost in overtime to Loyola of Chicago.
The next year UCLA won the championship for the first time: undefeated. That game was broadcast nationally. UCLA, with no player over 6’5″, defeated a very tall Duke team. It won again in 1965, establishing the all-time scoring record for the final four games: 100 points/game. That was the tentative beginning of March madness for NCAA basketball. In 1966, Texas Western (now the University of Texas, El Paso) won, the first all-black team to do so. They defeated Kentucky, which was all white. The next year, Lew Alcindor arrived on the varsity at UCLA. By the time UCLA’s reign of terror ended in 1975, March Madness was a TV ratings factor.
WHEN SPORTS ARE BIG BUSINESS
Hardly anyone watched pro football until the 1958 game between the New York Giants (Charlie Connerly) and the Baltimore Colts (Johnny Unitas). Pro basketball was still being played in gymnasiums as late as 1962, when Wilt Chamberlain had been in the league for two years. There was not even a sports photographer at the 1962 game where he scored 100 points, the all-time record in the NBA. After the game, a photographer handed him a piece of paper with 100 written on it. He held up the paper. That photo is the only visual record of the game. The game was played in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in front of a crowd of 4,124 people — half the arena’s capacity.
Today, sports are big business. Sociologists offer lots of explanations, but the obvious one is probably the central factor: people want to belong to something that is larger than their own circle of friends. They want to be able to identify themselves emotionally as members of a significant group. Church used to provide this sense of meaning for most Americans. There was also competition from politics. Robert Nisbet half a century ago wrote a book on the phenomenon of messianic politics as redemptive: The Quest for Community.
If we date the pinnacle of the Protestant Establishment with the death of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in 1960, the rise of sports as a replacement makes sense. Vatican II (1963—65) and its aftermath undermined the older Catholicism in the second half of the 1960’s. Politics turned sour for Democrats with Lyndon Johnson, and for Republicans with Richard Nixon. Reagan could not restore faith in politics as a form of participatory redemption for Republicans. Clinton surely did not restore it for Democrats.
People want to be represented by someone. Sports teams have replaced churches and political parties as the central institutions providing a sense of community through representation. Professional football has competed with church on Sunday. In off seasons, NASCAR racing fills this role, but without team membership. Fans are committed to individual drivers. The same is true of golf, another Sunday sport.
The Olympics are for national participation what teams are for cities. The national flags and anthems create the required sense of participation. The Classical Olympics fulfilled the same function for Greek city-states. Exceptionally great athletes in some cases were assumed to be godlike, with death making them gods. This was the meaning of “hero.” The rise of popularity of the Olympics, as measured by Nielsen ratings, began in 1960.
Television has been a major factor, bringing sports into homes. But television had been bringing other forms of entertainment into millions of homes from the mid-1950’s. Sports were not prime-time attractions in that era.
If I were to date the change, I would select November 22—25, 1963, as the turning point. The death of Kennedy, and the sharing of grief through television, for the first time brought the nation together through television. The Beatles arrived six weeks later. The television coverage for them was immense. From that point on, the television became more than a medium for entertainment. It became a means of creating a sense of community — virtual community, in other words. The radio did this in the 1930’s, with Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats as the supreme examples. But radio lacked the visual element. Television supplied this. Television grabs the emotions more forcefully than radio does.
Color television enhanced this sense of participation. This became universal after 1965, which is why there are almost no black and white movies made after 1965, except for deliberate artistry, such as The Last Picture Show. The studios knew they had to get their films on TV, and TV meant color.
Color made an emotional difference. When viewers could see team colors clearly, their level of commitment rose. The arrival of this technology parallelled the decline of commitment to other representative institutions. Sports became the huge winners.
The last major breakthrough came with the acceptance of all-black teams in the NBA. There was a brief period in the early 1980’s when the transition was close to complete racially. The NBA did not enjoy the level of commitment from viewers that it possesses today. The networks did not battle with the same ferocity to get the NBA games. But by the end of the decade, the commitment of fans to team colors was complete. What John Wooden’s UCLA teams and the Lakers had done for Los Angeles basketball fans in the second half of the 1960’s, the NBA did for whole cities by 1990: persuaded them that victories based on talent were more important than the racial make-up of the teams.
The pay scales enjoyed by NFL and NBA players, let alone the stars, indicate that there is enormous commitment of fans to representation by athletes. Companies know this, which is why they pay for the advertising. If we follow the money, we can judge the level of commitment by fans. The failure of women’s sports to generate anything like the revenues that male sports generate remains the most measurable testimony to the complete failure of the women’s liberation movement and the U.S. government to make unequal things equal by law.
The NCAA remains one of the most successful large-scale cartels in the United States. The NCAA has successfully kept down the monetary price of talent, though not of coaches. It has had to surrender ground on the academic price of talent, such as players who can read at a ninth-grade level — or even lower. But hardly anyone cares about this: old grads, fans, coaches, and state legislatures. Faculty members grouse about this, but their clout is so minimal as to be ignored with minimal cost. Faculty members, unlike star athletes and winning coaches, are easily replaced.
April 6, 2004