ESPN Relegated To NIT, Women’s Tourney After Starting The NCAA Magic That CBS Copied | Glenn Guilbeau

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I’ll never forget sitting in a sports bar in Pittsburgh in March 2015 while covering LSU in the NCAA Tournament. Myself and other writers, along with throngs of other patrons, watched three television screens showing the NCAA Tournament.

In the back, in the corner, in the dark played an NBA game on another screen. No one was watching.

I’ve always thought the NBA should hold its All-Star break during the first week of the NCAA Tournament to avoid such embarrassment. It still can do that.

Last week, the NCAA Tournament enjoyed its most watched first round in history, according to the Sports Business Journal. An average of 9.3 million watched. Late in No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson’s 63-58 win over No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday, 11.5 million watched. The first round of the NBA Playoffs in 2022 drew just an average of 3.7 million. The average viewers for 15 NBA regular season telecasts this season drew a 2.64 million average.

NCAA Tournament Thursday Schedule

The magic continues Thursday night with four games in the round of 16:

  • No. 7 seed Michigan State (21-12) vs. No. 6 Kansas State (25-9), 6:30 p.m., TBS, New York.
  • No. 8 seed Arkansas (22-13) vs. No. 7 Connecticut (27-8), 7:15 p.m., CBS, Las Vegas.
  • No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic (33-3) vs. No. 4 Tennessee (25-10), 8:45 p.m., TBS, New York City.
  • No. 3 seed Gonzaga (30-5) vs. No. 2 seed UCLA (31-5), 9:45 p.m., CBS, Las Vegas.

For those of you who live in NBA cities or with relatives in the Association, check your local listings for any NBA games.

For the NCAA Tournament, no family ties at all are necessary. That’s what the NCAA Tournament illustrates better than any other sporting event, or non-event like the NFL Combine or college Pro Days. Rooting interests entering the tournament not needed. No brands necessary.

How many of you out there before last Friday even knew where Fairleigh Dickinson was located? It’s in Madison, N.J. Before FDU’s upset, “FDU” might as well have been a Fire Department softball team in Utica, N.Y.

When FDU played FAU (Florida Atlantic) in the second round, it looked more like a CBI Tournament game on paper. Only people actually watched this one as FAU beat Cinderella, 78-70, and became Cinderella. Or at least one of her sisters.

Brayden Reynolds (No. 24) of the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights celebrates after beating No. 1 seed Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 17 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Speaking of the CBI (College Basketball Invitational), hats off to them for not inviting Detroit Mercy for its 16-team, low tier, leftover tournament. With an invite, Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis could have scored four more points in his five-year career to surpass LSU’s Pistol Pete Maravich, who scored 3,667 in three seasons. I feared the CBI would pit 14-19 Detroit Mercy against 14-19 LSU for a match made in basketball hell.

“I feel I got cheated out of something that they can’t ever give back to me,” Davis said after not getting the invite.

Key word, “give.” Because the record would have been given to you, and America would have been “cheated” out of one of sports’ most iconic records.

Now, back to the real tournament.

No. 15 seed Princeton (23-8) is actually the new Cinderella and plays No. 6 Creighton (23-12) on Friday in Louisville (9 p.m., TBS). Princeton and Creighton in the same game in the Sweet 16! That’s what this tournament is about. Big names not needed. Big rosters not needed either, as in football. You only need five on a team in basketball, and only two or three really good players. And you can make it here.

But there are brand names, too. The other Friday games are:

March Madness Friday Schedule

  • No. 1 seed Alabama (31-5) vs. No. 5 San Diego State (29-6), 6:30 p.m., TBS, Louisville.
  • No. 1 seed Houston (33-3) vs. No. 5 Miami (27-7), 7:15 p.m., CBS, Kansas City.
  • No. 2 seed Texas (28-8) vs. No. 3 Xavier (27-9), 9:45 p.m., CBS, Kansas City.

One of the biggest brand names in all of sports brought this magic to America’s consciousness like never before in the 1980s. No, not CBS. It was ESPN.

Many say the Michigan State-Indiana State national championship game in 1979 on NBC that pitted Earvin “Magic” Johnson versus Larry Bird begot March Madness. In many ways it did, but that was the title game in prime time.

ESPN, a fledgling cable network that started in 1979 basically in boxes in Bristol, Connecticut, started doing NCAA Tournament first-round games in 1980. It was ESPN that made day games on a Thursday must-see TV. ESPN pioneered jumping from a lopsided game to a better game to catch the treasured buzzer beaters. It made “whip-around” coverage a science.

ESPN Lost NCAA Tournament to CBS in 1991

That all ended in 1991 when CBS gained exclusive coverage and has been copying ESPN’s expertise ever since. CBS and Turner (TBS, TruTV) has the NCAA Tournament through 2032. One of the reasons the NCAA Tournament went to and stuck with CBS is because of a broader base, and ESPN will cover the NCAA Tournament whether games are on ESPN or not.

ESPN breaks down the games played and to be played with precision. That’s why this scene was sad and pitiful last Saturday morning as Rece Davis, Jay Bilas and Seth Greenberg closed their basketball GameDay broadcast at noon. It was a great show, but when it ended, ESPN went live to the NIT.

“You are looking live at Michigan and Vanderbilt?”

What a letdown it must be for Rece, Jay, Seth and the boys.

ESPN’s live coverage of postseason basketball has for too long been relegated to the NIT and the NCAA women’s tournament. At least, it’s not doing the CBI.

ESPN Settling Now For The NIT And Women’s Tournament

The Bradley-Wisconsin NIT game on March 14 topped out at only 383,000 viewers. That’s even less than CNN’s 399,000 total average viewers last Friday for third behind MSNBC (804,000) and FOX (1.43 million).

ESPN tries hard to push the women’s tournament with commercials and with stories on its website, and there are some good games. I enjoyed covering LSU’s five straight Final Fours from 2004-08. Alabama had a great, 3-point-shooting-wild team in 1994 that I covered at the Final Four. But let’s be serious, it’s not close to the men’s tournament. Kingpin Connecticut and Baylor drew only 943,000 viewers on Monday, which was down 17 percent from the same window last year.

Of course, Connecticut beat Baylor by 77-58 after winning its opener over Vermont, 95-52. That’s part of the problem. The women’s tournament tends not to be as competitive as the men in the early rounds. Louisville-Texas drew only 783,000 on Monday night. Louisville won, 73-51.

“We all missed it,” FOX Sports broadcaster Tim Brando said of ESPN losing the NCAA Tournament to OutKick on Wednesday. Brando was with ESPN from 1986-94 and served as a studio host for the NCAA Tournament when the Big Dance exploded on televisions everywhere.

ESPN Pioneered How To Televise The NCAA Tournament

“But we knew it was coming,” he said. “It was a blast, and we were changing the world of NCAA Tournament coverage. We became the paradigm for what CBS did. I would have the producer in my ear, ‘We’re switching to this game. So-and-so has the ball with 10 seconds left, and it’s tied. Moving in 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.’ It was wild. We were having so much fun, we really didn’t know how difficult it was.”

Dave Miller was usually the producer in Brando’s ear. He was at ESPN from 1980 through 2015.

“We wanted to take the viewer to the most compelling action,” Miller told OutKick. “I think one of my bosses came up with that ‘whip-around’ coverage term. I’m not sure exactly when it originated, but I remember it. We were always trying to get to the best action. There were a lot of upsets, but also so many near upsets.”

One such near upset happened between No. 1 seed Georgetown and No. 16 seed Princeton in the first round in 1989. At halftime, Princeton led 29-21 at the half in Providence, R.I. John Saunders and Dick Vitale were the co-hosts in the studio in Bristol.

“We go back to the studio, and there’s total silence,” Miller said. “John and Dick are just looking into the camera. Then they look at each other, then to the other side. Finally, Dick says, ‘If Princeton wins, I will walk to Rhode Island. And I will stand on my head.”

He did not walk the 100 miles to the state line, but he did stand on his head with the help of some ESPN staffers, even though Georgetown won, 50-49. Alonzo Mourning blocked two game-winning shot attempts by Princeton in the final seconds.

“It was the moments that you don’t expect that make covering the NCAA Tournament so great,” Miller said.

NCAA Tournament Drama So Memorable

Brando moved on to CBS to call play-by-play of NCAA Tournament games before going to FOX in 2014, and he did some memorable buzzer beaters.

After Michigan State beat Maryland, 85-83, on a Korie Lucious 3-pointer at the buzzer to reach the Midwest Regional round in St. Louis in 2010, Brando said, “So for Michigan State, it’s Meet Me In St. Louis!”

After Butler beat Florida, 74-71, in overtime to reach its second straight Final Four in 2011, Brando said, “The Butler did it … again!”

Brando also called four first round games in 2008 in Tampa in which the underdog seed won all four. He has done college football, MLB and NBA play-by-play. But there was nothing like those early days at ESPN in the 1980s with the NCAA Tournament.

“It was the most fun I’ve ever had in the studio,” he said. “It was like every day of the tournament, we’d get there, and say, ‘OK, let’s go.’ And it was an adventure every game. You never know who’s going to win or really care.”

Two more weekends of fun to go.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau joined OutKick as an SEC columnist in September of 2021 after covering LSU and the Saints for 17 years at USA TODAY Louisiana. He has been a national columnist/feature writer since the summer of 2022, covering college football, basketball and baseball with some NFL, NBA, MLB, TV and Movies and general assignment, including hot dog taste tests.

A New Orleans native and Mizzou graduate, he has consistently won Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) and Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) awards since covering Alabama and Auburn at the Mobile Press-Register (1993-98) and LSU and the Saints at the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004). In 2021, Guilbeau won an FWAA 1st for a game feature, placed in APSE Beat Writing, Breaking News and Explanatory, and won Beat Writer of the Year from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association (LSWA). He won an FWAA columnist 1st in 2017 and was FWAA's top overall winner in 2016 with 1st in game story, 2nd in columns, and features honorable mention.

Guilbeau completed a book in 2022 about LSU's five-time national champion coach - "Everything Matters In Baseball: The Skip Bertman Story" - that is available at, and Barnes & Noble outlets. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, the former Michelle Millhollon of Thibodaux who previously covered politics for the Baton Rouge Advocate and is a communications director.

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