Celizic: Duke saved us from a boring Final Four

TV folks faced the very real possibility of trying to sell a Final Four composed entirely of Cinderellas

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Duke's players and fans weren't the only ones celebrating the Blue Devils' win against Baylor Sunday night.

    You can bet CBS executives were doing the same thing.

    When the day started, the TV folks faced the very real possibility of trying to sell a Final Four composed entirely of Cinderellas.

    That's not as appealing as it sounds. If everybody’s a Cinderella, than nobody is. The story doesn’t work without an evil stepsister. Nobody watches it.

    That’s why CBS had to be hoping Baylor didn't beat Duke, the team nearly every college fan loves to root against.

    A Bears win would have made for a marvelous Sweet 16 and Elite Eight weekend, one of the best ever. It would have given us three 5-seeds — Butler, Baylor and Michigan State — along with West Virginia, a team that last went to the Final Four in 1959, when Jerry West was their leading player.

    Unfortunately, that's a group with great stories and no drama. The public usually wants superstars and celebrity. When the biggest name is Michigan State, that doesn't cut it. It has nothing to do with the quality of the basketball. True fans would be delighted to see Baylor instead of Duke playing for the championship, but true fans don’t drive the ratings, casual fans do.

    To get the casual fans involved, you need the biggest names. In college basketball, Duke's on that shortlist. (Kentucky or North Carolina are also on that list.)

    Duke is the best possible team to have in a Final Four. Like the Yankees, nobody’s neutral about the Blue Devils. You either hate them or love them.

    Haters think the Devils' fans are arrogant snots, that the coach is a pinch-faced biddy and that few of the players are NBA-bound.

    The other side thinks the fans are fabulous, that the coach is a combination of Knute Rockne and Mother Teresa and that the players are the embodiment of self-sacrifice and teamwork.

    Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to watch them.

    The statistics back that up. When George Mason went to the Final Four in 2006, nobody watched. The Patriots lost, and the title game between Florida and UCLA was watched by six million fewer viewers than the previous year and was the lowest-rated championship since 1975.

    On the other hand, in 1992, Duke-Michigan drew 34 million viewers, the most ever for a championship game

    And the NCAA needs viewers. From 1975 to 1999, the championship game drew between 25-34 million every year. Then, in 2000, Michigan State-Florida drew 20.6 million, a big drop. The finals haven’t broken 24 million since. They’ve had a hard time, in fact, breaking 20 million.

    It would be the same this year without Duke.

    That’s not to say there aren’t great stories in the Final Four. There are. The Mountaineers are a second seed, but they haven’t been to the final weekend of the season for 51 years.

    Michigan State thrives in March. The Spartans have been to six Final Fours under Tom Izzo and were in the highest-rated game ever, the 1979 Magic Johnson-Larry Bird final. But the team’s history of excellence doesn’t equal viewers when Magic isn’t on the team.

    Then there’s Butler, the classic Cinderella, the kind of school that sends casual fans running to Google to find out which state it inhabits. They find out that Butler is not only an Indiana school, but its field house was the setting for the state tournament in “Hoosiers,” maybe the best basketball movie ever made.

    That’s all super for the storytellers and makes decent office fodder. But there can’t be more than a handful of people who have Butler in their Final Four, and people are more likely to watch a game in which they have a betting interest than one in which they don’t.

    That’s another reason people will watch Duke. For a lot of fans and non-fans alike, Duke is their last chance of rescuing something from the ruins of their devastated brackets. If it means a shot at winning the office pool, you watch.

    So, though Baylor would have been fun, we’re still left with a pretty good Final Four. We’ve got a true Cinderella in Butler, an upstart Big East team in West Virginia, a faithful sidekick kind of team in Michigan State and the big, bad Dukies.

    If you are a Duke hater, you’re not happy. If you’re CBS, you're ecstatic.