There's been one common refrain for hoops fans and scribes during the ongoing conference realignment mess: Basketball doesn't matter.
That's because it doesn't. In deciding which teams align themselves with conferences, the main factor is money. That money is generated by attractive TV contracts. It's all very business-like, corporate and cold-minded. It's less John Wooden than Gordon Gecko. That's a little sad. But it's not exactly surprising.
Fact is, as a whole, college basketball is on a downward trek, what with falling attendance, lower television ratings, and an NCAA Tournament that no one network was willing to televise. College football is the cash cow on the rise, its overall numbers enjoying a steady climb. No wonder then that mad-money Texas and national name Notre Dame are the two golden apples every conference would love to pick off the money tree. When one apple goes, all are likely to fall into the cart.
That's the common sentiment. But the common sentiment might be a little bit too hard on college hoops.
For example, that NCAA tournament deal? Sure, no one network wanted to take it on, but I could just as easily spin the NCAA's new deal with CBS and Turner as a major business coup for college hoops. After all, look at all that money! The NCAA signed a deal for $10.8 billion over 14 years. That will net the organization an average of $776 million per year, about $200 million more per year than the NCAA's previous deal with CBS. That money provides almost all of the NCAA's yearly operations revenue. If not for college hoops, there might not be an NCAA.
The two network thing? Also good -- the NCAA can televise every single NCAA tournament game on live television for the first time ever. And it didn't have to expand to 96 teams to do it.
Nor do college hoops' attendance numbers necessarily portend doom. Sure, average attendance figures decreased by about 3 percent in 2009-10. But the overall number increased to $27 million, a figure reconciled by the increase in schools now competing in Division I, many of which have smaller venues and minimal fan interest. Those additions put a drag on average attendance, sure. But in total, college basketball attendance in 2009-10 was the fourth-highest of all-time.
Ratings are flagging, too, but ratings in every sport are flagging. That's because we have more choices as viewers now, more channels, more Internet, more video games, more distractions. Everyone's ratings are down. That's not just a college hoops thing. (Especially this year, when the Final Four had its best TV showing since 2005.)
All of which is to say that, sure, college hoops might not factor into conference realignment. That's been drilled into our heads frequently this offseason, most notably in the case of Kansas, one of the most storied hoops programs in the country and one that might not have a conference home by the time this whole mess shakes out.
But college hoops shouldn't freak out too much. There are plenty of positive signs here.
College hoops may be well past its glory days. The talent is different; the landscape has changed. But the game is still awfully good, and awfully popular. As football programs chase TV dollars from one end of the country to the other, let's not forget it.