If an uncanny sense of chronological drift is one of the defining features of the working-from-home era, then the scattered rhythms and weird tipoff times that have characterized the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament have made it the most representative major sporting event of the pandemic era.
In compacting March Madness down to a 19-day schedule and ensuring that each of the Sweet 16 games would air in its own discrete window, the overlords of college hoops have given fans a simulacrum of what a year of quarantine has done to our collective sense of time. (Upon waking, if it doesn’t take you at least a couple minutes or so to figure out what day it is, you’re probably a clock.) In true temporal-scrambling fashion, we saw the regional semifinals get underway on a Saturday rather than the time-honored Thursday, and tonight the Elite Eight wraps with a USC-Gonzaga showdown that starts at 4:15 p.m. on the West Coast and a UCLA-Michigan game that’ll bleed into the midnight hour back East.
The syncopated bewilderments of the tourney have led to a similar sense of disjunction during the ad breaks. During Saturday night’s Syracuse-Houston game, the commercial-adverse NFL RedZone host Scott Hanson took to Twitter to bemoan the seemingly endless interruptions from the CBS sponsors (“So… many… commercials”). But the isolated Sweet 16 schedule only made it seem as if each break had been elasticized like an old Stretch Armstrong action figure; after all, without a simultaneous TNT/TBS/truTV game to flip over to during the breaks in the action, the NCAA had effectively neutralized our commercial-avoidance reflexes.
For CBS and its Turner Sports comrades, keeping viewers tuned in during the breaks is not a bug—it’s a feature. The amount of sponsorship revenue that had been denied the networks last spring was significant—according to Standard Media Index estimates, the 2019 tournament generated $655.1 million in ad revenue, once allowances for make-goods were factored in, and if nothing else, the Indy Bubble is all about making up for lost time.
While things may look flawless from the comfort of your BarcaLounger, nothing about this year’s dance has come easy. “There’s nothing that we’ve done since the pandemic began that’s been more complicated than the NCAA Tournament,” Sean McManus, longtime leader of CBS Sports, said earlier this month. “It’s a lot of programming and a lot of tonnage to put on the air for 11- and 12-hour days. The other events have been complex. Nothing’s been more complex than the NCAA Tournament.”
So if hoops enthusiasts in Spokane and L.A. are going to have to punch out a little early today to catch the Bulldogs-Trojans game, and while Michigan and UCLA alumni on the East Coast are in for a late night, a little disorientation and inconvenience is the price of fandom. Every other consideration takes a back seat to powering through to the national championship on April 5. CBS isn’t the only entity with a vested interest in getting to that “One Shining Moment”; for the NCAA, which saw its media rights and marketing revenues plummet from $867.5 million in 2018-19 to $165.2 million in 2019-20, so much depends on cutting down the nets in Lucas Oil Stadium.
“You know, last year we had to rip March Madness away from all the teams and all the fans at the very last minute,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert back in January, when it had been decided to give it a go in the Hoosier State. “We all know it was the right thing to do, but it was also an incredibly painful thing to do, and this year we want to make sure we deliver on the promise of March Madness. The athletes who have dealt with so much difficulty this year and have responded with such incredible resiliency and resolve, they deserve it. So let’s all get this done, Indiana. We can do this.”
Sportico will be publishing one short business highlight every weekday (and on some weekend days) during the three-week NCAA tournament.
March 20: Men’s vs. Women’s NCAA Tournament Money
March 21: Indexing the NCAA’s Corporate Sponsors
March 23: As Top Seeds Lose, Sportsbooks Win
March 24: #NotNCAAProperty Reaches Millions Online
March 26: Loyola’s Rambling Flutie Effect