Does the first weekend of March Madness seem more mellow nowadays? It’s not because you’re getting older (even though you are).
It’s because the best part of the first weekend has gone away, and that’s due to the reason most great things which accidentally became great go away- money.
Let me take you back a few years.
You flip on the only network showing the games, CBS, to watch the first games of the tournament on Thursday, because there are “only” 64 teams in the tournament. Greg Gumbel does his intro. And then, on the screen, the games list. “We’ll start you all out with Duke and Iona in Greensboro,” he says, because Duke always seems to lead off the tournament and play in Greensboro. “Then, at 12:10, the 4-13 match-up in Buffalo, Oklahoma and Santa Clara,” because before “pod seeding” if you were in the East you played in the East first-round site. “At 12:15, Vanderbilt and Creighton in New Orleans, and at 12:20, Oregon and Seton Hall in Detroit.”
All games started within 20 minutes of each other. And that meant all the games finished within 20 minutes of each other. And that led to the origination of the network flipping back and forth between the games that were coming down to one-possession finishes. As Gumbel explained it some years ago, they had all the games up on monitors in the studio and were changing their focus from one game to the other. So why shouldn’t the fans get the same experience?
It was the embryonic origins of the Red Zone Channel, flipping from the best game to the best game to the best game and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. It used to be the only time that could happen. Now, it happens all the time.
Except in March, where it originated.
Since the TV contract now stipulates that every game is on, four networks show four different games for the first weekend. In using my made-up example above, Duke-Iona would be on CBS, because it’s Duke. The other three games would be on TNT, TBS, and TruTV (which everyone forgets even exists except for one week in March).
And that leads to the biggest issue with game-flipping, which is that it stopped occurring. It almost never happens because the games are such staggered starts. Duke-Iona would still start at the top of the hour but the second game in my scenario, Oklahoma and Santa Clara, wouldn’t start until 12:40 at the earliest. Vanderbilt and Creighton at 1:10. And Oregon-Seton Hall at 1:40. And why is that? Because it allows for a pre-game show on each network. By staggering the starts by a half-hour or more, there’s very little opportunity to go back and forth between frantic finishes happening in different places.
It does still happen, albeit rarely, and this is the only way it does: There is a 20-minute gap between games in each location. If the first game in a location goes short- or long- then the second game could start around the same time as a game in a different location that lasted about as long as it should.
For instance, say the Oklahoma-Santa Clara game went long. So, the Michigan-North Texas game could start about the same time as the Georgetown-Washington State game (because the Vanderbilt-Creighton game was a blowout- Blue Jays win, of course). And that could mean a frantic finish with two games coming down to the wire at the same time.
But that’s the only way it could happen. Because sometimes, you get what you want- but not what you need. And what we need is more flipping back-and-forth.
March has lost a little bit of what made it so Mad in the first place, and we can thank our insistence on watching every game- and the extra money it brings in- for the change.