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Pierce: NCAA Tournament remains TV’s best sports event

Sports on TV » Ratings for Week 1 are the highest they’ve been in the past 20 years.

First Published Mar 26 2013 10:55 am • Last Updated Mar 27 2013 11:32 pm

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament proved once again that it is the greatest televised sports event in America — and viewers tuned in by the millions.

The ratings for the first week of the tournament were the best in 20 years, according to Nielsen.

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An average of 8.9 million viewers tuned in to the combined CBS/TBS/TNT/truTV coverage last week — up 7 percent from 2012. Viewership peaked on Sunday with an average of 11.1 million viewers, up 29 percent from 2012.

No, we’re not talking Super Bowl numbers. An average of 108 million tuned in to see the Ravens beat the 49ers last month.

But the NCAAs are not a one-time event. It’s not the story of a single game, it’s the story of 68 games, 68 teams and hundreds of players.

And you don’t need to have a rooting interest to get involved. Which is a good thing for Utahns, given that no Utah teams made it to the tournament this year.

What makes the early rounds so much fun is the unpredictability. In a single-elimination tournament, you never know will happen. Wichita State (a 9 seed) beat Gonzaga (1). Harvard (14) beat New Mexico (3). Oregon (12) beat Saint Louis (4). Cal (12) beat UNLV (5). Mississippi (12) beat Wisconsin (5). LaSalle (13) beat Kansas State (4).

Florida Gulf Coast (15) beat Georgetown (2), and then beat San Diego State (7).

Sure, an underdog can win the Super Bowl. But it won’t be a team you’ve never heard of before.

Before last week, how many of you were even aware of the existence of Florida Gulf Coast University, which didn’t open its doors until 1997?

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Even if FGCU loses to Florida on Friday, this is a great story. A made-for-TV story you don’t often find in any other sporting event.

One day you’re, "Who?" and the next you’re genuine TV stars.

There are a few bumps along the way to stardom, of course. Like when an on-screen graphic identified the Eagles as Florida Golf Coast when they played San Diego State.

The thinking is that the upsets, combined with a few last-second victories by the likes of Ohio State, LaSalle and Marquette, have helped juice the NCAA ratings. Sure, there were plenty of blowouts — Syracuse’s 81-34 win over Montana pops to mind — but the great thing about that is you can switch channels and watch a different game.

It was just two years ago that CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus was assuring us that his new partnership with Turner Sports — born out of the need to beat back a strong bid from ESPN for the rights to the NCAA Tournament — was going to work. That it was going to be a boon to the fans.

There was grumbling that some of the games would be on truTV — a channel available in "only" 92 million homes — in addition to CBS, TBS and TNT. There was concern about how well the two TV giants would mesh their operations.

It was worry about nothing. CBS and Turner have done a magnificent job of telecasting the NCAA Tournament on the four channels. They’ve kept us up to date on everything that happened and everything that was happening concurrently on the different channels.

And they’ve made it possible for every fan of every team to see any game in its entirety.

Who could ask for anything more?

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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