Anyone watching this year's tournament on television can't help but notice the empty arenas. Teams accustomed to playing in front of capacity crowds during the regular season are competing before meager audiences in the most important games of the year.Again, the tradeoff: game times are convenient for television, not necessarily for fans.
But, as coverage of Wisconsin-Green Bay's upset bid notes, at the expense of Connecticut's fan base.
North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell was not a supporter of predetermined sites when they were introduced.
"I felt like it was too early," Hatchell said. "Most of the time, we got to host because we were one of the top 16 teams, and we got great crowds. You say, 'Well, that gives the higher-seeded teams a home-court advantage.' But you know what? You play the whole season for that . . . . We went to the predetermined sites for several reasons. I think some of it was for the convenience of television. Television has helped us tremendously, but yet it's hurt the attendance."
Television is also blamed in part for inconvenient starting times. Being a North Carolina fan these days means being a night owl. The Tar Heels haven't had a game earlier than 9 p.m. during the tournament.
"You do what you have to do, especially for the TV exposure," Hatchell said. "I do think it's awful late, especially on a school night because to me our fans are senior adults and families with young children. And when your game starts at 9 or 10, they're not going to be there."
North Carolina isn't the only one with late games. Connecticut has played nine consecutive NCAA tournament games after 9 p.m. ESPN knows it can count on these teams to draw viewers.
"This is all TV driven, all ESPN driven," [Connecticut coach Geno] Auriemma said. "If it was up to us, we'd have played at noon."And disappointing the kids, who are a big part of the audience at Northern Illinois as well. What's the purpose? To comply with Title IX? To determine a national champion under the most objective of circumstances? (which the "them that has gets" formula for seeding and for assigning home courts most emphatically is not.) To use the television revenue, such as it is, to reduce the athletic department's operating deficit?
Auriemma believes the late starts hurt attendance because a large part of UConn's fan base is children and older adults. A crowd of 6,824 attended the Huskies' first-round game. UConn averaged 11,493 fans per game during the regular season. The Huskies split their home games between their on-campus facility in Storrs, Conn., and here at the Hartford Civic Center.
UConn often is placed in the later prime-time spot because it has a national appeal.
"ESPN will say, 'If it wasn't for us, you wouldn't even be on television, so kiss my (expletive)," Auriemma said. "That's what you'd get from them, but I don't know if it's ESPN's fault. If somebody else was doing the games, they'd be doing the same thing."
The coaches focus on the predetermined (often distant) sites, the television coverage, and ticket prices. Has anybody heard of elasticity of demand? A lower ticket price that sells out the arena can also generate more revenue than a higher ticket price that forces ESPN2 to use tight shots to hide the empty seats.
National Review's Carrie Lukas offers her own hypotheses.
Most others will find more benign explanations; namely, that the men’s game is more fast-paced, dramatic, and thus appealing to a television audience.Perhaps. The men's game will provide more spectacular evidence of defensive breakdowns for the highlight tapes, as well as that slim chance of a jailhouse brawl during the game. But, again, to fret about attendance and television ratings is to turn the discussion into a business case study. It's supposed to be amateur sport, isn't it?