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March Madness ratings soar on Ch.4

By Alan Pergament

Here’s another of my periodic Sports on the Air blogs:

If the local ratings for the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on CBS here are any indication, thousands of Western New Yorkers will be huddled in front of their sets for the national semifinals today featuring the two games between the Final Four.

Channel 4, the local CBS affiliate, saw ratings for the four Sweet 16 games it carried last Thursday and Friday rise by almost 22 percent from year ago.

And the ratings for the four Elite 8 games played last week on Channel 4 rose by 65 percent from a year ago, making it the highest-rated Elite Eight ever since Buffalo became a metered market in 2000. The big increases followed lower ratings here for the early-round games on Channel 4.

Most impressively, the local rating for Michigan’s victory over Florida and Louisville’s defeat of Duke  Sunday had a higher combined rating than the games did nationally. That doesn’t happen often around here.

CBS reported this week that household ratings for the tournament on the broadcast network and all the Turner Network channels are up about 9 percent from a year ago.

Finding the reasons for the incredible local rise in college basketball ratings can be a little tricky. The immediate thought is that the participation of two of the Final Four teams, Syracuse University and Michigan, might have had something to do with it. After all, Syracuse has a large local alumni group here (especially among the news media) and Michigan has a lot of fans here because its coach, John Beilein, is a Western New York native and former Canisius College coach.

However, Syracuse also made the Elite 8 a year ago. Its win over top-seeded Indiana on Thursday was the top-rated game last week in the Sweet 16 but not by that much. And its win Saturday over Marquette was only the third highest-rated of four Elite 8 games. Michigan’s win over Florida Sunday was the lowest-rated Elite 8 game by far here. The top-rated game last weekend was Louisville’s win over Duke, which was the late game Sunday, featured a Blue Devils team that many fans love to hate and a horrific injury to Louisville’s Kevin Ware that got a lot of attention on the social networks.

Discounting the followings of SU and Michigan here as responsible for the big ratings leaves me to conclude the bigger factors were the unseasonably cold weather for late March and the fact that this year’s tournament made people think anyone could win. The weather makes the most sense. A year ago, we had it pretty good around here.

It also could be that the economy means fewer people are watching where they wouldn't count -- in bars or at parties.

The Final Four matchups late this afternoon and tonight look like local ratings winners as well. The first game features a Louisville team inspired by the horrendous knee injury to Ware. The Cardinals play Wichita State, this year’s Cinderella team.

The second game features Syracuse and Michigan, which may test the allegiances of some Orange fans who appreciate what a great story Beilein has become this year as a symbol of coaches who have worked their way up the ladder from lower basketball divisions.

I know it has tested the allegiance of this Syracuse graduate. As you read this, I am an early morning flight to Atlanta to watch the Final Four games a decade after my oldest son and I watched Syracuse win its first national title in New Orleans.

I don’t know Beilein very well. But this being Western New York, our paths have crossed a few times. One of my sister-in-laws used to be good friends with one of his sisters. My daughter was in the same class at the University of Richmond with Beilein’s daughter.  We walked our daughters down a spiral staircase at the ceremonial Ring Dance at Richmond during their junior years. I sent my oldest son to Beilein’s basketball camp at Richmond when he coached there so he could honestly assess my son’s potential to play college basketball.

When I attended a wake in Buffalo for one of my Long Island high school classmates late last fall, I ran into another of Beilein’s sisters. She and her husband knew my classmate. Inevitably, the talk turned to basketball because she was readying to go to Michigan for an early season game.

I’ve always rooted for his teams -- except when they play Syracuse. I drove to Cleveland to watch his West Virginia team upset Wake Forest and Chris Paul in double overtime in 2005.

You don’t have to read all the extraordinary positive national pieces written about Beilein this week – including one in Sports Illustrated – to realize he is as good a human being as he is a coach.

In other words, he will be hard for this SU grad to root against. The way I look at it, I can’t lose tonight no matter who wins.    

Some more quick basketball notes: CBS basketball analyst Seth Davis had to feel pretty foolish after he predicted Syracuse would lose in the first round to Montana, a team it beat by 47 points. Now that the Orange has reached the Final Four, he really must feel idiotic.

I’m impressed by the work of ESPN’s Seth Greenberg. He’s a better analyst than he is a coach. On the other hand, Digger Phelps talks and talks and says a lot of nothing.

CBS surely can do better than Clark Kellogg, a likable analyst who rarely says anything enlightening and talks in maddening clichés.

Give it up to Charles Barkley, who had one of the best pre-tournament quotes in assessing the Big Ten. You may recall that Sir Charles said “if you get together a bunch of ugly girls and pick a homecoming queen that doesn’t mean she’s the homecoming queen.” Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State all lost in the Sweet 16, and Michigan only survived because of an incredible 35-foot shot by player of the year Trey Burke that sent its game against Kansas into overtime.

Finally, does any newspaper or TV station cover Rutgers University basketball and have a reporter attend a practice now and then? That was one of my initial thoughts after video surfaced that showed former Coach Mike Rice abuse players and spout homophobic slurs. When Rutgers played at Syracuse this season, Rice’s three-game suspension and $50,000 fine was mentioned by TV announcers. It made me wonder what exactly he did to deserve it. You might have thought someone covering the team would have wondered the same thing and investigated it. A lot of people in power or who keep the powerful accountable look very bad because of this abusive situation and that includes the New Jersey and New York City area media. Reporters had the story right in front of their noses for months before it came to light and Rice and his athletic director were fired.

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