March Madness: TV ratings tell the story — the tournament is perfect as is

We entered the 2024 NCAA tournament hearing that the men’s game had no name stars and few blue bloods among the legitimate national title favorites.

Meanwhile, the powers that be in college athletics — commissioners and athletic directors attached to major football — were discussing expanding the tournament, at least when they weren’t busy raiding each other's leagues, filing lawsuits or lobbying Congress for antitrust carve-outs.

As run-ups go, it was less than ideal. Pretty much everything was negative.

Then came the first weekend of the tournament, and in between the dramatic upsets, the instant legends born and the online searches to determine that Oakland University is in Michigan, not California, the CBS Sports public relations team kept issuing news releases.

The most watched Thursday (8.5 million average) since 2015. The most watched Friday (8.3 million) ever. The most watched Saturday (10.3 million) ever, making the first three days (9.0 million) the most watched ever.

Broadcasters have ways of twisting numbers into not just good news but “best ever” or “most ever” news. So who truly knows.

Regardless of whether records were truly being set, here in an era of fractured viewership and rare shared-experiences, it is abundantly clear that the NCAA tournament is not just healthy, but thriving against industry trends. SportsBusiness Journal, meanwhile, reported the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament sold at least 97 percent of its tickets.

What’s left in the brackets is a top-heavy Sweet 16 that should produce a battle royale the next two weekends. For just the fifth time ever, every 1-2 seed is still alive. If you think CBS was gushing about ratings last week, wait until you see what is coming.

Seemingly nothing can kill this cocktail, whose chief ingredients are inclusion (small schools from non-traditional leagues) and exclusivity (it’s not simple for anyone to qualify), which means despite outsized budgetary disparity, things get settled on a level playing field (or court) with no safety net (one and done).

It’s the right size, the right mix, the right blend. Year after year after year.

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - MARCH 21: Chris Conway #2 of the Oakland Golden Grizzlies reacts as he walks off the court after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at PPG PAINTS Arena on March 21, 2024 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Oakland Golden Grizzlies won, 80-76. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Oakland provided the 2024 NCAA tournament one of its most magical moments when Oakland took down blue blood Kentucky. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) (Tim Nwachukwu via Getty Images)

A sport lacking in big-name, top draft pick, future NBA stars, à la Zion Williamson? No problem.

A new player procurement system where NIL and the transfer portal are spreading talent around and Nike and Adidas no longer just stock the rosters of their preferred historically dominant brands? Maybe not fun for a few established schools, but even better for everyone else.

A bracket that has held firm at 68, meaning there aren’t more 18-14 teams from campuses with 80,000-seat football stadiums? Turns out the event soldiered on without them.

College basketball is fine. Better than fine.

And so maybe if you were one of the people who are paid millions to run college athletics you’d be thankful to be in the position you are. Maybe you’d consider it a blessing that you can serve as a steward for this magical event, a uniquely American creation that has captured America’s attention for generations.

Maybe you’d see those TV numbers, see the social media frenzy, smile at the upsets and upstarts, see the young fans in the stands form the same relationship with this event as so many have before and promise to protect it at all costs, for the good of it all and the good of all.

Or you could continue to push for expansion, including floating out the need for “reviews” on issues such as “giving away highly competitive opportunities for automatic qualifiers [from smaller leagues].”

You know, like Oakland and Yale.

Or you could try to rework the numbers and say more at-large bids are needed due to conference realignment, even though the number of “high major” teams is essentially the same.

In 2022, the six major conferences featured 76 teams for 43 automatics or at-large bids (.566 percent) — ACC (15 teams), Big East (11), Big 12 (10), Big Ten (14), Pac 12 (12) and SEC (14). Next season, due to realignment, there will be five major conferences with 79 teams for 43 automatic or at-large bids (.544) — ACC (18 teams), Big East (11), Big 12 (16), Big Ten (18) and SEC (16).

The stats don’t scream the need for expansion because of conference realignment. Adding bids to help the plight of the mid-tier, power-league teams decreases the opportunities for the mid- and low-majors — including pairing more of them off against each other in the “First Four,” not giving them a crack at the likes of Kentucky in the real field.

Yet talk to anyone in college sports and they say expansion to at least 72 teams is coming. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has become the face of this, but he is hardly alone.

These days, college athletics is about seizing any small advantage for a single conference or school — one more bit of revenue, one more slot in the tournament, one more advantage in seeding.

Meanwhile, the general welfare is too often ignored. Concern for messing with the formula too much isn’t seemingly considered. Not even here, in a March when the athletes are reminding us what this is all about and the fans are voting with their attention and viewership.

Let's say it again: Don’t fix what sure as heck isn’t broken.