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How TV Killed West Coast College Basketball


The 2014 NCAA Championship game is set and UConn will square off against Kentucky. While there has never been a championship with two lower seeded teams since seeding began, the outcome of this year's tournament should be familiar to college hoops fans. There is a lot of talk about parity in college basketball these days, but when it comes to championships, some schools have a distinct advantage. The outcome of this year's tournament has already been determined and has been repeated nearly every year since John Wooden's UCLA Bruins won their final championship in 1975- the NCAA Championship team will come from the Central or Eastern time zone.

A knee-jerk response might be to point out that there are far more Division 1 basketball schools in the Central and Eastern time zones and that is true. If you throw out the occasional oddball schools that play in conferences primarily outside of their timezone, like UTEP in C-USA, Denver in the Summit League and Chicago State in the WAC (how crazy is that?), you're looking at about 18% of the schools being located in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. So shouldn't they win the NCAA championship about 18% of the time?

Prior to Wooden's retirement, that was certainly the case, due in no small part to Wooden's dominance in the post season. In the 37 years before Wooden's retirement, Pacific & Mountain time zone schools made 20 appearances in the championship game, winning 17 times (46% of all championships). Even if one threw out all of UCLA's championships, Pacific & Mountain schools still won seven championships (~19%) during that span. In the 38 years since Wooden's retirement, Pacific & Mountain schools have won just three titles (UNLV in 1990, UCLA in 1995 & Arizona in 1997), which accounts for less than 8% of the championships.

So what changed besides the retirement of the Wizard of Westwood? TV. Anyone who watched the 30 for 30 on the Big East Conference caught a glimpse of what I'm describing, although few folks seem to make the connection. ESPN started up in the late-1970s and in their search for programming, they joined forces with the NCAA and the Big East Conference to begin televising college basketball games on a regular basis. That move changed everything.

Prior to ESPN, college basketball games would appear on TV every so often, but not with anywhere near the frequency that ESPN (and soon other networks) brought to the table. Prior to that, TV coverage wasn't even on the radar of most potential student-athletes, but once the Pandora's box of coverage opened up, it would never be closed again.

Prior to TV's entry into the landscape of college basketball, recruiting tended to be more regional. For some student-athletes, playing closer to home meant their families would be able to see their games more often. That still didn't stop coaches from converging on the playgrounds of New York City and plucking top talent like Lew Alcindor or Tiny Archibald and taking them West. For those top talents, TV coverage wasn't that big of a deal either, because games were rarely televised. If they weren't staying in the city, the difference between playing for North Carolina or UTEP or UCLA wasn't that big of a deal, because few of the games were ever on TV.

ESPN's presence changed all that, allowing friends and families to tune in and catch far more games, while simultaneously raising awareness of the schools across the country. Kids on the West Coast would come home after school and catch Georgetown and Syracuse on TV, exposing them and the rest of the country to schools of the East Coast. The difference became more pronounced when TV coverage expanded for Mountain & Pacific time zone schools. ESPN was the heavyweight on cable TV, appearing in more households than any other sports network. Conferences that aligned themselves with that network saw their profiles increase dramatically. Even when Mountain and Pacific time zone schools started getting more national coverage, the time zone difference made it a challenge for much of the country to watch those games. Eastern and Central time zone games are generally on at a convenient time for everyone. Move west another time zone or two and things become problematic for viewers East of the Rocky Mountains.

If a Mountain time zone school wants a 7:30PM tip-off to maximize ticket sales, they're looking at a 9:30PM tip on the East coast and a game that may not end there until close to midnight. That's too late for a lot of high school kids and people who have to work the next day. The problem becomes even tougher for the Pacific time zone schools, where an 8PM tip would require folks to stay up well past midnight to watch a basketball game.

Does that enter into the equation for recruits? You bet it does. When a player narrows his list of schools, they start to pay more attention to them and probably try to catch their games on TV. That's when it hits home to both players and their families, that a lot of these games will be on late at night for anyone living in the Midwest or East coast. So while TV may not have killed West Coast basketball, it had definitely shifted the balance of power East of the Rockies. Teams like Arizona or UCLA may make a run here or there, but they'll never have a consistent chance to contend for championships like they did before TV forever changed the landscape of college basketball.'

It's probably too early to tell who the top teams will be in college basketball next season. When the time does come to fill out your bracket next year, remember that teams in Mountain & Pacific time zones have failed to win the championship 92% of the time in what is essentially the modern era of the college game.