Final Four weekend is upon us. On Saturday, April 1 four teams from the field of 68 will face off Phoenix with a national championship berth on the line.
Two newcomers to the Final Four -- No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 7 South Carolina -- will tip off the proceedings at 6:09 p.m. ET in front of a sold-out crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Immediately thereafter, No. 3 Oregon will take on the seasoned veterans (or 'Blue Bloods,' if you prefer) No. 1 North Carolina.
On Monday, March 27, CBS and Turner Broadcasting hosted a kick-off call for Final Four week. On the call were Sean McManus (chairman, CBS Sports), David Levy (president, Turner) and this weekend's in-game analysts, Grant Hill and Bill Raftery, to discuss the tournament up to this point and look ahead to Final Four weekend.
Among the range of topics discussed, were the steady growth of the NCAA Tournament both in traditional media (TV) and digital media for both Turner and CBS.
"The partnership is firing on all cylinders right now," McManus said of the unique broadcast rights deal between Turner and CBS. "This year, in many ways, is probably our most successful year. The tournament -- to date -- we're up 10 percent this year over last year, averaging 9.8 million viewers, which is just spectacular. [Sunday's] Kentucky-North Carolina game averaged 15.5 million viewers and was actually the second-most watched regional final on either a Saturday or Sunday since 2005. So we've got enormous tailwinds heading into championship weekend in Phoenix."
Levy expanded on McManus's points about this year's success, touting the growth of the tournament from a digital perspective as well.
"Sean talked about the TV side, but from a digital perspective we're hitting all sorts of records," Levy said. "Live video streams this year are 88 million to date, which is a season record. Social engagements are at 54 million, which is a 75 percent increase, by the way. So while TV ratings are up, so are all the digital and social, and that's an incredible feat when you look at this brand and think about this brand as an omni-brand across all platforms."
One thing that's certainly helped drive more interest in the tournament is the teams remaining. Frank Martin's path from nightclub bouncer to coach of a gritty South Carolina team in the Final Four has been well chronicled. And North Carolina always draws a crowd, whether you're rooting for or against them. But Gonzaga and Oregon's appearances are special since the West Coast rarely sees this kind of representation in the Final Four and on a large national stage.
"Any time you have any kind of bi-coastal representation it doesn't hurt," McManus explained. "People have enjoyed watching the brand of basketball that Oregon and Gonzaga run, so it can definitely help."
"A lot of people in the East don't realize what's going on in the Pac-12," Raftery added. "UCLA, Arizona, Oregon were terrific basketball teams, and of course Gonzaga because of the West Coast Conference (WCC), a lot of people overlooked them. So it's going to open up eyes to how good these teams are. Anybody in coaching or in athletics knows how good these West Coast teams are in this particular year. But it's healthy, it spreads the wealth a little bit."
Now, the only question that remains regarding these "under-appreciated" West Coast teams is if they can overcome the bright lights and the bigger stadiums and cap off what's been an incredible run.
While North Carolina is the betting favorite (7/5 to win it all), McManus, Levy, Hill and Raftery all agree that at this point, it's truly anyone's tournament.
"The unknown is what makes this exciting," Raftery said. "We mentioned South Carolina earlier... people don't know who they are and people don't know who Frank Martin is, they don't know how tough this team is. So in terms of a favorite, [North] Carolina would be the one getting the action, because people know them; they're on... over the course of the season. But Gonzaga is for real too, and so is Oregon."
"Just the mere fact that they made it this far -- regardless of route to get to the Final Four -- I look at any one of these teams as capable of winning," Hill said. "I say North Carolina, because I've seen a lot of them this year, and they're familiar. We saw them last year, coming so close and losing at the end of the game to Villanova. But when you look at Gonzaga, Oregon, South Carolina... different games, different teams and different styles of play, but very effective. Anybody can win. It'll be exciting to watch and follow and see who will pull it out."
Coverage of the Final Four on CBS will begin three hours prior to Saturday's 6:09 p.m. ET tipoff between South Carolina and Gonzaga. Additionally, Villanova head coach Jay Wright will join the broadcast as an analyst to offer his insight on both Final Four games and the national championship game Monday night.
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