Study: Everybody loves a Cinderella

At various points in the past five years -- including this week -- as foreboding superconferences have lurked on the horizon and outcry against the NCAA's amateurism model has reached a fever pitch, some coaches and plenty of analysts have pondered the notion of a post-NCAA NCAA tournament. What would happen if a wave of power-six leagues decided they were going to establish their own postseason, a la the college football system?

John Calipari spitballed something along these lines back in 2011, arguing that the only way to make "pay-for-play" work was for the large schools who could afford it to create their own postseason tournament. Getting to a place where players can be semi-fairly compensated and get a good education sounds like a dream, but Calipari's thought experiment struck as cold. Not only would it necessitate the inclusion of bad high-major/superconference teams that frankly no one wants to watch in March, but it would effectively kill the secret sauce that has fueled the NCAA tournament's historic rise: Cinderellas.

Because, hey, Cinderellas are awesome, right? This should be a no-brainer. In fact, it is not.

There is another, smaller strain within the sport that isn't sure whether Cinderella should always be welcome to the ball. The 2011 Final Four was a good example. The miracle Final Four runs made by Butler and VCU culminated in a semifinal showdown, and while this no doubt thrilled many (yours truly included), there were plenty of gripes both in the media room and outside it that the game would be bad for ratings, that big-name programs were always preferable, that the basketball would be so ugly as to draw scorn. When the basketball was ugly -- never more so than in Butler's national title matchup with UConn (honestly, the box score should go in a museum) -- these suspicions seemed to be confirmed. And so the history of the 2011 Final Four was written.

When the 2012 Final Four gave us Kansas, Ohio State, Louisville and Kentucky, the general consensus was glee. The large markets and large fan bases had returned. The ratings would jump. The basketball would be better. The future NBA stars would be on display. The casual fan would frolic among us once more!

According to a new study by BYU statistics professor Scott Grimshaw, that whole notion is totally wrong.

Turns out, people happen to really like Cinderella stories! And that's not just them saying so before sneaking off to watch more Anthony Davis highlights. Those people vote with their feet. According to Grimshaw's findings, which he based on 10 years of Nielsen TV ratings in 56 American markets:

... "a NCAA Men’s Final Four game featuring a Cinderella team, or an underdog from a smaller school, will have a 35 percent larger TV audience than a game featuring two national powerhouse schools. That 35 percent jump translates to 3 million more viewers for a semifinal game and 4.5 million more for the championship game."

That is a huge leap. There's more:

The jump in ratings is even bigger when two Cinderella teams face off in the Final Four. Nearly 11 million households tuned in when Virginia Commonwealth met Butler in a 2011 semifinal game. Without their respective Cinderella labels, the model predicted an audience of only 6.4 million.

Although a championship game featuring two Cinderella teams hasn’t happened yet, Grimshaw’s model extrapolates that it would result in an 81 percent larger audience.

So much for the "everyone hated the 2011 Final Four" meme, huh? Sheesh.

As Grimshaw explains in the BYU release accompanying his paper's publication, previous research on the NFL and English Premier League held that fans tuned in for three identifiable things: big-market teams, recognizable stars and close games. This is the conventional wisdom regarding almost all sports on television, and it makes sense. But Grimshaw's paper was "myth-busting," he says, because it showed that college basketball viewership worked in different ways. Only close games pressed hoops viewers' dopamine nodes in the same ways as other sports; individual stars and big markets had very little correlation to ratings.

What a relief.

For a few years now, the prevailing notion -- that there is a dichotomy between what makes the tournament emotionally interesting for die-hard fans and what makes viewers tune in -- has unwittingly pitted the classic fun of the NCAA tournament against market "reality." That same dichotomy is at work when people talk about the pay-for-play setup eschewing small schools, about high-major conferences breaking off on their own; it's the same one that said the NCAA tournament could expand to 96 teams and not lose anything in the process. More big schools equals more viewership, right? And why do we need the little guys, again?

Thanks to Grimshaw's research, those of us who would push back against this notion have more than adorable nostalgia in our quivers. We have the marketplace imperative. People love Cinderella stories. They make the NCAA tournament special. They also what make the NCAA tournament money. How's that for a win-win?

(Updated and related: Bylaw Blog's John Infante has an interesting examination of the look an eventual split-level college sports reality might take. Worth a read.)