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Seth Davis writes the “Inside College Basketball” column for Sports Illustrated, which he joined in 1995, and the “Hoop Thoughts” column for SI.com. He is also in his fifth year at CBS Sports, where he is an on-air studio analyst for the network’s college basketball coverage. His new book, “When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball,” chronicles the 1979 college basketball season that reached its climax in the championship game between Michigan State and Magic Johnson and Indiana State and Larry Bird.
Davis spoke with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh as the madness of March was just beginning.
Favorite piece of music: “Hard Rock Kid,” by The Radiators
Favorite vacation spot: St. Tropez
Favorite author: John Steinbeck
Favorite quote: My grandfather’s “Don’t just make a living. Make a life.”
Favorite movie: “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Best basketball movie: “Hoop Dreams,” with “Fast Break” a close second
Last book read: “Too Fat to Fish,” by Artie Lange
Favorite blogs:Deadspin, Talking Points Memo, Jeffpearlman.com
Favorite Web sites: Politico.com, realclearpolitics.com, newyorker.com
Pet peeve: People with a lot of pet peeves
Biggest challenge: Breaking 80
What is the main story line in this year’s NCAA tournament?
Davis: The four teams at the top — North Carolina, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh — have been the best four teams all year. But there’s no clear favorite. It’s more fun this way. I don’t think the tournament is as wide open as people try to make it out to be. If you go back the last 20 years, I bet 75 percent of the champions have been either 1 seeds or 2 seeds. Generally, the cream will rise, but you’re not sure which team is quite the creamiest.
What would you change if you ran the NCAA tournament?
Davis: I would get rid of the opening-round game and I would shrink the at-large pool from 35 to 33 teams. They call it an opening-round game because they don’t like the term “play-in” game, because they want people to feel like it’s part of the tournament, but it’s not really. I’m all about giving the smaller schools access to the tournament.
What about adding a play-in at each of the four regions?
Davis: I’m very much opposed to expansion. The only reason to expand the tournament is to save coaches’ jobs. These guys are under enormous pressure. I say they should make as much money as they can while they’re coaching because with one or two bad years, everybody wants them out.
You’re sensitive to their situation.
Davis: I’m extremely sympathetic to that, but it doesn’t make any sense to dilute this product. Here’s my point: In every playoff around the world, the purpose is to crown a champion. The NCAA tournament fulfills that purpose, but that is not the only purpose. Whether it’s Bryce Drew of Valparaiso or Northwestern State winning on a last-second shot, or Stephen Curry and Davidson, or George Mason going to the Final Four, that is the essence of the NCAA tournament. Those of us who comment on the games need to keep agitating to preserve that essence.
In The New York Times on Feb. 23, David Falk advocated raising the age limit from 19 to 20 or 21 for players entering the NBA. He said it would create more polished rookies. Do you agree with his idea?
Davis: I am opposed to any age minimum for the NBA. This brings out the free-market capitalist in me. If the NBA does not want 18-year-olds in their league, they should stop freakin’ drafting them. You’re going to deny somebody an opportunity. It’s not about getting polished rookies. I’ve talked to Billy Hunter many times about this and the reality is, the later a player gets to the NBA, the less money he’s going to make over the course of his career, the fewer number of years he’s going to have for his big contracts later in his career. So, don’t tell me this is about the game or the kids.
This season marks the 30th anniversary of the 1979 NCAA basketball championship. In your new book, “When March Went Mad,” you wrote that the game “helped to catapult college basketball, and especially the NCAA tournament, into the national consciousness.”
Davis: If that game had been played 10 or 15 years later, it still would have been a big deal. But it would not have had the multiple ripple effects that it had. It was a perfect confluence of events and it occurred at the precise moment when it could have maximum impact.
You wrote that the game “also came at a most propitious moment,” citing the dawn of the cable TV era, the ascent of ESPN and the Big East Conference and the NBA’s “sagging attendance and plummeting TV ratings.”
Davis: The 1979 championship game was the highest-rated basketball game — pro or college — in history (24.1 rating). If you had a television set, there was a 1-in-4 chance that you were watching. And for a lot of people, it was the first time they saw these guys play because they weren’t on all the time. The game was played six months before the launch of ESPN. The Big East started the next year. The NBA was at a low ebb and was eager for the infusion of these guys. It was the first time they ever put any rookie [Johnson and Bird] on the cover of the league’s preseason media guide. And the NBA Finals was on tape delay. It wasn’t even live.
In his pregame remarks at the time, NBC’s Bryant Gumbel said, “If you haven’t seen Bird, you’re in for a treat.” You wrote, “That statement spoke to the limited national exposure college basketball, and Bird in particular, had enjoyed to that point.”
Davis: When I watched the tape of that game, that remark crystallized for me the impact of that game.
It was Eddie Einhorn who saw the potential of college basketball games on TV. He founded the TVS Television Network that brought college basketball games into people’s homes in the 1960s and ’70s.
Davis: He was a visionary. I talked to him at length for the book. Eddie Einhorn and Dave Gavitt and Walter Byers and David Stern … these are people who have to see some things that are not there yet, and that’s how a game progresses. And then they need an event. Eddie Einhorn really understood the notion of an event. He wasn’t setting up a basketball game with [the telecast of] UCLA and Houston in 1968; he was setting up an event. And of the 1979 championship game [NBC producer] Don Ohlmeyer said, “Hey, we’re not interested in making this out to be a game; we want it to be an event.”
The NCAA tournament has also grown into big business. You wrote about the explosion in television rights fees and revenue. In 1999, CBS and the NCAA agreed to an 11-year, $6 billion deal that began with the 2003 tournament.
Davis: The tournament resonates in a way and has become a valuable property. It is very rare that network television can hold a country spellbound for three straight weeks. CBS has managed to build a culture and an identity right up to “One Shining Moment.”
Sean McManus is my boss, but I would put him in that class of visionaries because he understood the value of multimedia rights. And CBS has used the tournament to promote its other shows. Les Moonves has talked about the value that the tournament has in that regard. Not only has the tournament survived as a real, viable commercial property, but I think with the proliferation of options, it even becomes that much more valuable because it’s still so distinct.
The tournament doesn’t appear to have suffered because of the economy. CBSSports.com has sold nearly $30 million in advertising for March Madness on Demand. That is more than 20 percent above last year’s record $23 million in sales.
Davis: For a major property to do that well in this environment is just about all you need to know about the NCAA tournament. You find me another major property that is up any percentage right now. We’re all struggling and trying to get through this. There is a unique and special relationship between
Americaand the NCAA tournament.
There is even a fake spreadsheet that you can click to if you are watching the tournament online while at work.
Davis: (Laughing) The Boss Button. Brilliant! That’s where I pinch myself, because in my case, if I wasn’t watching the games, my boss would get mad at me.