ESPN's coverage of women's college basketball is crucial for the game's future.   (Photo by Kelly Kline)
ESPN's coverage of women's college basketball is crucial for the game's future. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

The Ackerman Report (4): The media that matter the most

August 21, 2013 - 10:46am

(This is the fourth in a series of commentaries on Val Ackerman’s report on the state of NCAA women’s basketball.)

“57 channels (and nothin’ on)”

– Bruce Springsteen, from a song of the same name on "Human Touch"

The Boss, though, had it wrong. It’s more like 570 channels and nothin’ on – which is a big reason that women’s college basketball is here to stay. In fact, aside from Title IX, it might be the biggest reason.

Just remember the last time you were aimlessly channel surfing. There you sit, clicker in hand, adult beverage by your side, cat in your lap. You watch a little SportsCenter, get bored, check out the big networks, there’s nothing much there either. The Food Channel? Maybe five minutes. Anthony Bourdain’s not on CNN, and a bunch of talking heads are complaining about the Democrats, or the Republicans, or both. Moving right along …

Eventually, Springsteen’s narrator gets so frustrated he gets a .44 Magnum and “just lets it blast”, and though most of us don’t go that far, at some point we all wonder “With all these channels, why isn’t there anything to watch?”

The Internet isn't any better, really. After all, how many cat videos can you see, and how many strangers can you argue with?

Which brings us back to the aspect of women’s basketball that will keep it going indefinitely: It is content.

The great maw of 24/7 broadcasting, on cable and the Internet, chews up content like your puppy chews up cushions, and content is expensive. For a network to create its own show from scratch is a multi-million dollar project, and to draw advertisers to a Web page, there has to be something riveting involved – and that too costs money to create.

College sports, though, are cheap content. Sure, the network has to pay for the rights, but the colleges do all the creating. They get the actors (players), they pay the directors (coaches) and they supply all the infrastructure (studios/gyms, drama/rivalries, etc.). All the broadcaster has to do is get some cameras, some fungible announcers who work cheap, an upload link, and voila – content.

And basketball is great content, because it’s a timed sport and pretty much every game is going to fit into a two-and-a-half-hour window. Unlike baseball or volleyball, broadcasters can schedule basketball and be pretty confident that whatever follows the game will air on time, pleasing viewers and advertisers (not necessarily in that order).

So what does that have to do with Val Ackerman’s report on how to improve the game? Simple – if the NCAA wants women’s basketball to generate more revenue, then it has to realize that its major marketing tool is television and network broadcasts (from here on out, just to save time, we’ll use “television” to stand for both TV and the Internet.)

Therefore, whatever changes are made in the game need to be focused first and foremost on how they will impact the television product, because that’s where the vast majority of people will see the games. And if the games on TV are boring, those people are not going to get off the couch, drive to the nearest college campus, pay for parking, pay for tickets, buy an overpriced Coke, and sit a long way from the court for a women’s basketball game.

The bottom line, then, is that the powers that be need to be very, very conscious of the impact of whatever they do on the TV audience. For example, playing in big arenas with small crowds gives viewers the impression that no one cares about the sport, while packing that same crowd of 1,000 into a 1,000-seat arena will be much more exciting. And a 30-second clock that allows teams (we’re looking at you, Villanova) to run 25 seconds of methodical screens that have all the excitement of a Ronco knife infomercial isn’t going to attract many fans.

In the long run, making the game as attractive as possible on TV is the single most important way to increase in-arena attendance. Marketing (billboards, ads, etc.,) is nice, but every game that’s shown is free advertising, and there will be more and more games shown every year. That advertising can work for the sport or against it, and though there’s only so much that can be done to make the game more exciting on television, whatever can be done should be done. (Another example are the plethora of timeouts at the end of a close game that turn the last minute into a 15-minute marathon – that may be fun at the arena, but it’s deadly on TV.)

It’s going to be very easy for the insiders to focus on what they are most used to experiencing, and what interests them, but the vast majority of potential ticket-buyers will determine what they think of women’s basketball by what they see on TV, not what that experience is like on a college campus or in a college gym. The more everyone is aware of that reality, and the more that reality is taken into account when decisions are made, the better off the game will be.