March makeover: Ain't seen nothing yet

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2011 - 9:13 PM

Three more teams, ramped-up television coverage ... it's a March makeover for an already wildly popular, and lucrative, sports institution.

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Members of the media looked over the completed basketball court inside Ford Field in Detroit, site of the Midwest Regional.

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As you filled out and tore up your brackets, immersed yourself in buzzer-beaters and shocking upsets for four solid days, and rooted for every underdog from Butler to Binghamton, here's the one thought that probably never occurred to you about the NCAA men's basketball tournament: Gee, it seems so small.

Silly sports fan. That quaint, miniature version of March Madness is about to seem as obsolete as peach baskets.

Everything about the 2011 tournament, which takes over America's consciousness Sun- day when the pairings are revealed, is bigger and, the NCAA prays, better. There are three additional teams invited, an extra day of competition, dozens more games available to watch on three new channels, and way, way more money at stake than ever before. Heck, even CBS' Final Four broadcast team has added a third voice.

"In many ways, it's a whole new adventure," said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's executive vice president in charge of the tournament, which has expanded to 68 teams. "Fans are going to find it to be a fantastic experience. Sometimes I look at it and wonder why we weren't doing this long ago."

Maybe it just took a while for TV executives to fathom writing checks worth $10.8 billion, the astronomical fee CBS and Turner Broadcasting will pony up over the next 14 years to televise, stream and distribute the tournament. The networks won a bidding war with ESPN and Fox by agreeing to a 40 percent hike in rights fees, and in doing so, agreed to a unique partnership that will, for the first time, allow fans -- provided they have cable -- to watch every minute of every game.

And that's most of us. Of the nation's approximately 126 million households, virtually all have access to CBS, more than 100 million have TBS and TNT, and about 92 million have truTV.

No more regional telecasts, no more split-screens, no more switching from game to game for "live look-ins" at the whim of network programmers.

"We've empowered the viewer," said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. "Whatever game you want to watch, it's available. In that sense, it's a total departure."

That's because while CBS will televise 26 games over three weeks, roughly as many as the network has for the past several years, the other 41 games will air on a trio of Turner cable channels: TBS, TNT and truTV. The concept for the busy first weekend is "four national telecasts," McManus said, each channel airing a game from tipoff to the final buzzer, no matter how lopsided the score. Rather than leaving a game in progress to air the final seconds of a tight contest, announcers will simply alert fans that they might want to switch to the channel airing that game.

"It's going to take some time, but once the viewer gets used to it, I think he's going to like it. He's got the control in his hands," said McManus, pointing out that starting times will be spread out, not bunched together as in the past, in hopes of avoiding several games ending at once. "At first, he might sit there saying, 'Why does CBS stay with this 25-point game? In the past, we would protect the local [stations] and switch, but there's no switching to another game in this format. What we're going to do is navigate the viewer [by saying], 'There's a two-point game over on TNT right now.' "

That sort of cross-promotion is normally inconceivable, but CBS and Turner's alliance includes a unique provision: They are selling commercial time jointly, so national ads on one network will air on all. That makes maximizing everyone's ratings more important, and the channels will cooperate on divvying up the schedule.

"We'll do some horse-trading, back and forth," on who gets what games, McManus said. "But we're out to reach the largest cumulative audience."

Part of that audience will be online, too. All games will be streamed for free at the March Madness on Demand website, and the NCAA's new "March Madness" app, available at Apple's app store, lets fans watch for free on their iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, plus participate in online chats, post to Twitter and Facebook, and access statistics, schedules and highlights. (An Android phone app is also available but does not include live streaming of games.) The end to regional telecasts means stations no longer can count on airing their local teams' games. Had Minnesota made the field, for instance, the Gophers would be as likely to appear on cable as on WCCO.

That's likely to be unpopular with CBS affiliates, which normally register huge ratings on their local tournament games, and especially with fans who don't subscribe to cable or satellite TV. Brien Kennedy, general manager of the network-owned WCCO, declined to be interviewed, but McManus said CBS had little choice.

"All I can say to that is, it's much better [for CBS stations] than the alternative, which was having the entire tournament on ESPN," he said. "In the past, when we gave the Duke game to Raleigh and the Illinois game to Chicago, it was obviously much more attractive for our affiliates, but that scenario just was not available to us under this deal."

A few games are already set: CBS gets all four regional finals and the Final Four, which the network has broadcast since 1991, for the next five years. (But in 2016, TBS and CBS will begin alternating the national semifinals and championship game, the first time the final will be on cable.) And truTV, a channel once prophetically named Court TV, will broadcast the tournament's new "First Four," a pair of games each on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Two of the games pit the lowest-seeded automatic qualifiers and two match the last four at-large teams, with the winners advancing to the usual 64-team draw on Thursday.

"Those games are going to be exciting," said Jim Nantz, who will be joined by Clark Kellogg and new addition Steve Kerr, the former Suns executive who led Arizona to the Final Four in 1988, on CBS' lead announcing team. "They're the beginning of an exciting new era."

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