By Jim Weber
We as fans have put up with the NCAA tinkering with the tournament for years, but now it’s time to draw a line in the sand: Stop calling play-in games the “first round.”
When you decided to add a play-in game in 2001, no one put up a fuss. Sure, it was annoying to water down the tournament with a Tuesday game between No. 16 seeds, but we March Madness maniacs just chose to ignore it.
You then deftly renamed it the “opening round” to emphasize it was actually part of the tournament. We just rolled our eyes again and continued filling out our brackets.
Then came 2011, when you expanded the tournament to 68 teams by adding the “First Four.” We were irritated that the tournament was adding what felt like more NIT games, but we were just happy to avoid the Doomsday’s scenario of expanding the tourney to 96 teams. And we had to admit, the name “First Four” was pretty clever even if we still didn’t watch the games.
But then a really strange thing happened. When the Selection Show aired that year, everyone on CBS was calling the first round the “second round” and the play-in games the “first round.” It didn’t take long for people to piece together what had happened: The name change was a pure ratings grab.
We hoped the problem would just go away. But then came last year, when we continued to catch ourselves calling the “second round” the “first round” and explain the change to non-sports fans. We still shake our heads when asked, “Why do 60 of the 68 teams get a first round bye?” Heck, Wikipedia still doesn’t have the 2012 bracket listed “correctly”.
CBS’ Doug Gottlieb got the rounds confused last night on CBS’ Selection Show even those he’s paid to do this for a living. CBS’ Gregg Doyel, meanwhile, mockingly resorted to crossing out the names “first round” and “second round” in his column last night.
It’s gotten to the point where a lot of fans have just given up referring to rounds by the names “first,” “second” and “third” and instead just go by “Play-in games,” “Round of 64″ and Round of 32″ like Yahoo has done.
That’s because calling play-in games the “first round” is one of the cheaper euphemisms we’ve ever heard of. We might be pretty stupid as a society, but we aren’t that dumb. We know that “getting let go” means being fired, “passing on” means dying, “pre-owned” means used, “assisted living” means nursing home, “mobile community” means trailer park, “enhanced interrogation” means torture and the rebranded “first round” is just play-in games.
Like $0.99 at the end of a price tag instead of rounding up to the nearest dollar, calling play-in games the “first round” is an insult to our intelligence. And as the numbers show, we haven’t been fooled.
In 2010 under the old play-in game format, the Winthrop-Arkansas-Pine Bluff match-up on ESPN drew a 0.8 Nielsen rating, translating to 1.05 million viewers.
In 2011 under the “First Four” format also called the “first round,” the games averaged a 0.85 Nielsen rating and 1.3 million viewers despite having teams with bigger names and fan bases. That was also with the Final Four broadcast team of Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr in Dayton. Yes, the 2011 numbers carry a little more significance because the broadcast was on truTV instead of ESPN, but not much.
Last year’s First Four? It averaged a 0.9 Nielsen rating.
So after increasing from one to four play-in games with better seeds involved, adding the Final Four’s broadcast team and rebranding it the “first round,” the First Four averaged approximately an extra 50,000 viewers per game more in 2012 than in 2010 under the old format between just No. 16 seeds. That’s a drop in the bucket in the world of television.
You can put lipstick on a play-in game, but it’s still a play-in game. And calling it the “first round” isn’t fooling anyone.
I’ve been on Emmert’s case for years and gotten to the point now where all I’m asking from the NCAA is common sense. There’s been a real lack of that in Indianapolis between the Shabazz Muhammad case – in which the lead investigator apparently made up her mind to rule him ineligible for the entire season before acquiring all the facts - and the Nevin Shapiro investigation at Miami (FL) in which Shapiro’s defense lawyer was on the NCAA’s payroll.
Calling the play-in games just the “First Four” and rightfully calling the Round of 64 the “first round” (plus retroactively doing the same for the 2011, ’12 and ’13 tournaments) wouldn’t win the respect of the public back after all of the NCAA’s recent blunders. But it would be a nice way for Emmert and the NCAA to extend an olive branch to say “we’re sorry, we messed up” and “we’re actually listening to what fans want.”
For the NCAA and Emmert, that would be a great start.
Brian Spurlock/USA Today Sports