College basketball: Final Four short of A-listers

Cinderella teams make for great stories and busted brackets. They don’t necessarily make for great television ratings, though.

After getting a dream Final Four field last year, CBS and Turner Sports have something very different this weekend with Florida Atlantic, Miami, San Diego State and Connecticut making it to Houston.

The lack of recognizable names could affect the ratings.

Upsets during the first two weeks have seemingly already taken a toll. The tournament is averaging 9.11 million viewers through the regional finals, which is down 6% from last year. This after the first round on March 16-17 averaged 9.2 million, a record for the most-watched round of 64.

Last year’s Final Four of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova resonated even with casual fans because it was loaded with national brands. It also included Mike Krzyzewski’s final tournament as Duke’s coach.

This year’s group doesn’t have the same cachet.

“The public is telling us that they would rather see the bluebloods. The ratings support that,” said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, who now runs his own sports television consulting company. “I think it’s because they’re not familiar with teams like San Diego State, Miami or FAU. There was relatively little press attention paid to those teams during the year. Connecticut has a history, but they’re the only one of the four that really has had national exposure.”

College basketball also isn’t different from other sports when it comes to marquee teams translating to bigger audiences.

Two of last year’s Final Four games rank among the three most-watched college basketball games in cable TV history. The semifinal matchup between North Carolina and Duke averaged 18.5 million on TBS and ranks second, while Kansas’ comeback victory over North Carolina averaged 18.1 million.

According to Sports Media Watch, which tracked Final Four ratings to 1975, the Baylor-Houston game from two years ago ranks as the least-watched semifinal at 8.36 million (individual semis started being tracked in 2002).

The low for a title game on CBS is 2004, when 17.09 million watched UConn defeat Georgia Tech. The overall low was in 2018 on TBS, when 15.99 million viewed Villanova’s win over Michigan. CBS and TBS began alternating Final Fours in 2016.

Another thing that might factor into ratings this year is that Miami and Florida Atlantic are from the same television markets (Miami/West Palm Beach).

There are signs that suggest the viewer drop won’t be as bad. Last Sunday’s regional final between Miami and Texas on CBS averaged 11.3 million, which was the most-watched basketball game since last year’s deciding game of the NBA Finals.

Also, the 2011 semifinal between Butler and Virginia Commonwealth — the last time two mid-majors met in a Final Four — was down only 2% from the 2010 early semi, when Butler beat Michigan State.

“UConn is a very well-known program but with the other three, that’s where the interesting storylines are,” said Tag Garson, senior vice president of properties for Wasserman Media Group. “There are pundits who said they were seeded on a line that wasn’t reflective enough of the type season they had. There are some tremendous players that will be playing this weekend regardless of which team you are talking about.”