PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem waded through the crowd to find his seat in the rickety wooden bleachers of claustrophobic Cameron Indoor Stadium. Peyton Manning took a folding chair on the baseline. NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver made his way in after catching a flight from Boston.
Duke-North Carolina doesn’t just draw the eyes of the college basketball nation each time the rivals meet; it’s the closest thing to a regular-season all-star game that college basketball has. It’s that time when the sport stops and issues a powerful reminder that the regular season in college basketball does matter, at least for those two hours.
As the NCAA embarks on yet another college basketball season, many in the sport mourn an unintended consequence. The fever pitch of March Madness has reduced the regular season to second-class status.
Made-for-TV matchups like this week’s doubleheader featuring Duke-Kentucky and Michigan State-Kansas whet the appetite, but the nation’s eyes don’t truly turn to college basketball until after football season. Think about it: By the time the Super Bowl is played, it’s February and basketball’s regular season is in its stretch run. By then, March Madness has become the focus, whether you’re a Final Four contender or a bubble team.
|The scarcity of tickets when UNC plays Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium brings out major donors and celebrities.
The top regular-season college football game will generate a rating in the double digits, as the 2011 Alabama-LSU game did with an 11.9 on CBS. Last season’s highest-rated basketball game was the regular-season finale between Duke and Carolina with a 2.7 on ESPN.
With 68 teams now making the NCAA tournament — and conference tournaments losing their meaning for all but the most desperate teams — concerns have grown about the relevance of the regular season.
Duke-UNC television trends
|March 3, 2012||ESPN||2.7||4,247|
|Feb. 8, 2012||ESPN||2.2||3,121|
|March 13, 2011||ESPN*||1.4||2,076|
|March 5, 2011||CBS||2.7||4,611|
|Feb. 9, 2011||ESPN||1.5||2,367|
|March 6, 2010||ESPN||1.6||2,498|
|Feb. 10, 2010||ESPN||1.4||2,241|
|March 8, 2009||CBS||2.9||4,625|
|Feb. 11, 2009||ESPN||2.1||3,269|
|March 8, 2008||ESPN||3.4||5,612|
|Feb. 6, 2008||ESPN||1.8||2,634|
* ACC tournament
Source: SportsBusiness Daily research
Even in the basketball-rich ACC, where football and basketball in the past have been valued equally in the conference’s media contract, it’s now weighted roughly 70 percent football, 30 percent basketball. “In other conferences, it’s probably more like 80-20,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said.
But in pockets of the country, especially that eight-mile stretch between Durham and Chapel Hill, college basketball’s regular season does matter.
Swofford told a story from a recent gathering of conference commissioners, where the conversation turned, as it often does, to television rights. He tried to contain his smile when one commissioner, whom he declined to identify, confided that he considered only two regular-season basketball games as annual “must-sees”: Duke-Carolina and Carolina-Duke.
“When the commissioner of another conference makes that statement,” Swofford said, “that says a lot about how it’s viewed nationally.”
Facing the donors
The college game’s pre-eminent rivalry has become the face of the regular season. Neither the Blue Devils nor Tar Heels made the Final Four last season, but they play twice annually and the games drive tremendous business for both schools, their multimedia rights holders, and the networks that broadcast them: ESPN and Raycom Sports.
Living side by side, on campuses separated by a brief stretch of U.S. 15-501, Duke and Carolina propel television ratings to their peak. It’s that rare regular-season basketball game that resonates nationally.
It brings in well-heeled donors from all over the world, some of whom might not attend another game all season. A handful cling to season tickets just so they can be assured of a seat at this one. Those who don’t, jockey for the few seats
|The ACC has a powerful television syndication package that’s driven in large part by the opportunity to air UNC-Duke.
“When this game comes around, we’ve already predetermined who will receive these tickets,” said John Montgomery, executive director of the Rams Club, UNC’s athletic booster club. “These go to our best donors and our best prospects. Many of them bring in business clients because this is the one game they want to see. … This game doesn’t just monetize itself for one night. We monetize it over the course of several years.”
The Duke-UNC game on March 3, the regular-season finale, drew 4.25 million viewers, making it the most-watched college game out of the 1,450 that were broadcast on ESPN’s platforms and the most-watched college basketball game on ESPN since another Carolina-Duke game in 2008.
Duke donors came from as far away as Switzerland and Taiwan to attend that March showdown at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They were members of Duke’s Legacy Fund, an elite group of donors who have given more than $1 million to Duke basketball. Twenty-two of the 34 partners in the fund found their way to the Carolina game.
“It’s a very high-level group and they live all over the world,” said Kevin White, Duke’s athletic director. “This game provides one of the very few chances to have so many of them here. … It’s just so much bigger than an athletic contest. It’s like the world stops for a day.”
Turnkey Sports Poll
The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in October. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.
Which of the following is the best rivalry in men’s college basketball?
|Not sure / No response||3%|
Where would you rather see a Duke-UNC men’s basketball game?
|Cameron Indoor Stadium||68%|
|Dean Smith Center||15%|
|Not sure / No response||17%|
When Duke and UNC play in men’s basketball, who do you root for?
|I wish they could both lose||33%|
|Not sure / No response||15%|
Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.
“What I see is ESPN making more platforms” to deliver college basketball, he said. “They’re not shutting them down.”
TV advertisers, however, bear out the emphasis on March Madness over the regular season. Nielsen research shows that advertisers spent more than $1 billion on the 2011 NCAA tournament compared with just under $300 million on the 2010-11 regular season. The ratio is just the opposite for college football, where advertisers spend three times as much on the regular season as they do on bowl games.
Still, White could look around Cameron Indoor Stadium during the North Carolina game and see, from a business perspective, the importance of this regular-season rivalry.
Before the game, Duke President Richard Brodhead hosted close to 300 of Duke’s most influential donors at the Hart House, his majestic, on-campus home. Brodhead will host such events only a few times a year; the Duke-Carolina game is always one of them. It’s an opportunity for Duke’s fundraisers to spend time with their most valued donors, and without the game, getting this many of them together would be nearly impossible.
“You’re not in ‘ask’ mode at that point because you’re protecting the integrity of the game,” White said. “You’re just taking the opportunity to tell Duke’s story and give people kind of an insider’s view. … When you have events around this game, though, everything is enhanced. You do a lot of cultivating — you do an enormous amount of cultivating.”
The scene at Chapel Hill for last February’s game between the two schools carried the same feel, with TV trucks filling the parking lot behind the Dean Smith Center through the week and visitors clad in Carolina blue filling the halls outside Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham’s office.
It’s unlike any other day of the year and Cunningham, who started as UNC’s AD late last year, felt the stress of being tugged in one direction, then another.
That afternoon, about seven hours before the 9 p.m. tip against Duke, a line formed outside Cunningham’s door. Some of the school’s top donors came from Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and New York for the Duke game, the jewel of a season-ticket package that requires a minimum annual donation of $5,000 — a striking figure considering the fact that the spacious Smith Center seats 21,750.
For many of them, it’s the only game they see in person all season. And it was their first chance to meet Cunningham.
Cunningham invited his mother from Florida to the game, her first in Chapel Hill. At one point that afternoon, Cunningham peered down the hall at the line of visitors who wanted a piece of his time. He hoped he’d eventually get to see her.
“It’s the game that’s on everyone’s bucket list,” Cunningham said. “It’s that perfect combination of a regional game with national appeal.”
A few miles away at the Carolina Inn, UNC’s multimedia rights holder, Learfield Sports, entertained high-ranking executives from school sponsors such as Verizon, Wells Fargo and Time Warner Cable. Typical pregame hospitality might draw 50 to 75 Learfield guests. More than 200 packed the Old Well Room and adjacent rooms that were needed to accommodate all the guests prior to the Duke game.
Elan Chairman Robert Ingram, the former vice chair at GlaxoSmithKline; Tom Waggoner, a principal at 360 Architecture; and Jack Clayton, regional president at Wells Fargo, were among those in the room.
“Bubba asked me which game I’d want to go to and, naturally, I picked this one,” Waggoner said with a laugh.
Tuned in for a rivalry
When the head of the network that syndicates ACC basketball to stations across the country is asked what the conference can do to further drive its rights fees, he has one answer.
Men’s Basketball Top Revenue Programs, ranked by revenue
While on the court, Duke and North Carolina often find themselves ranked in the top five, and the same holds true when comparing revenue from the nation’s top basketball programs. Here’s how they stack up based on 2010-11 revenue, the most current figures available.
|Rank||School||2010-11 men’s revenue|
Source: SportsBusiness Journal analysis of U.S. Department of Education reports
While Haines was joking, his point was sincere. Since 1981, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Maryland each have been to a pair of Final Fours, making the ACC one of two conferences to have five teams appear twice in that span. Yet, for all the ACC schools that have percolated into national prominence in basketball over the years, UNC and Duke are without challenge the crown jewels in a conference that still considers the sport to be at the core of its brand.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the place ACC basketball holds on the television landscape. Like most major conferences, the ACC’s regular-season games appear on an array of channels, with rights holder ESPN sublicensing games for syndication to Raycom, and also to some regional sports networks. Where the ACC has stood alone over the years is in the power of its syndication package, driven in large part by the opportunity to air UNC-Duke.
“ACC basketball has long been like SEC football. It is consistently the most watched,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s senior vice president of college programming. “I’m not talking about who has the best teams or the best competition, but just in terms of driving viewer interest, it’s the ACC. And most of the credit for that goes to Duke and North Carolina.”
In the overwhelming majority of markets across the country, midweek college basketball games air in syndication via independent stations, or through the syndication-only MyNetwork. In contrast, the Carolina-Duke game has traditionally aired on CBS affiliates in the Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro markets and on NBC affiliates in Wilmington, N.C., and Columbia, S.C.
The ratings bear out that decision. From 2007 through 2012, the Wednesday night UNC-Duke game pulled Nielsen ratings ranging from 14.8 to 18.1 in Charlotte, 19.3 to 24.3 in Greensboro, and 21.9 to 26.8 in Raleigh. By way of comparison, ratings for “American Idol” in those three markets on a Wednesday night in January ranged from 13.4 to 14.8.
Most-watched regular season games, 2011-12
|UNC-Duke||March 3, 2012||ESPN||2.7||4,247|
|Carrier Classic: UNC-Michigan State||Nov. 11, 2011||ESPN||2.4||3,859|
|Kentucky-Indiana||Dec. 10, 2011||ESPN||2.3||3,585|
|Duke-Ohio State||Nov. 29, 2011||ESPN||2.3||3,422|
|Duke-UNC||Feb. 8, 2012||ESPN||2.2||3,121|
|UNC-Kentucky||Dec. 3, 2011||CBS||2.0||3,070|
|Ohio State-Michigan State||March 4, 2012||CBS||2.0||3,065|
|Missouri-Kansas||Feb. 25, 2012||CBS||1.9||2,939|
|Wisconsin-Ohio State||Feb. 26, 2012||CBS||1.8||2,895|
|Indiana-Ohio State||Jan. 15, 2012||CBS||1.9||2,881|
Source: SportsBusiness Daily research
Regular-season viewership trends (000s)
Source: SportsBusiness Daily research
Beginning last season, the ACC’s new TV agreement with ESPN allowed for the game to air both nationally on ESPN and in syndication, via Raycom. Even with that split, the game ran on 63 stations in 28 states via syndication, pre-empting major network programming in 11 major markets.
“The basketball regular season, for a lot of conferences, has deteriorated some in television terms,” Swofford said.
“There are so many games on now, with so much focus on the postseason, it’s had an effect on the regular season for all of us — but less so for the ACC than most conferences.”
“When you have a game of this magnitude, it’s huge because it also adds credence to other regular-season games,” Krzyzewski said. “It impacts the game before and the game after, not just in wins and losses, but also with all of the attention that’s paid to these two programs in the lead-up to the game. Those games before and after take on a greater magnitude and that’s the rippling effect it has on the regular season.”
Duke’s White was struck by how many questions he got about Duke-Carolina on a recent visit to London prior to the Olympics. “I was at Oxford and people asked about the game,” White said. “I spent some time with [London Olympics Chairman] Sebastian Coe and he was all over me about Duke-Carolina. I was dumbfounded by the interest over there and how much they knew about the game.”
Recent scheduling decisions made it clear how the rivalry is viewed within the conference. As the conference has grown, expansion broke up some annual home-and-home matchups. One that bit the dust was the annual two-game series between North Carolina and N.C. State, who now play just once per season in given years. Instead, the league preserved the two meetings per season for Carolina-Duke.
“I think when most people look for comparisons, it goes to Red Sox-Yankees or Auburn-Alabama football,” Swofford said of Carolina-Duke. “It’s more that type of thing than any other game in college basketball.
“I don’t know who is No. 2.”