Final Four lacks star power, but will compelling stories attract March Madness fans?

There may never be a more prestigious Final Four than last year's group of Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Villanova, which carried into the national semifinals a combined 57 previous appearances on college basketball's biggest stage.

Compare that to this year's foursome of No. 4 Connecticut, No. 5 Miami, No. 5 San Diego State and No. 9 Florida Atlantic, which bring into Saturday only five combined previous appearances, all from the Huskies.

For the first time since the NCAA men's basketball tournament expanded in 1985, the semifinals will feature three first-time participants in the Hurricanes, Aztecs and Owls.

Miami guard Bensley Joseph (4) drives to the basket against Texas during the Midwest Regional final at the T-Mobile Center.
Miami guard Bensley Joseph (4) drives to the basket against Texas during the Midwest Regional final at the T-Mobile Center.

Therein lies the broadest source of interest in this year's Final Four. Sometimes, these games will feature one Cinderella story – George Mason in 2006, Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 and Loyola-Chicago in 2018. These semifinals have three teams that fit that profile.

"There are always news kids on the block," said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing and public relations expert. "It’s just rare when the new kids on the block are more than one."

What is the interest in this Final Four?

However, for all the novelty in seeing fresh faces at NRG Stadium in Houston, the makeup of these games raises significant questions about the overall interest in an underdog-heavy Final Four.

Everyone wants the unpredictable, and this tournament has obliged with some of the most shocking results in recent memory, including just the second win by a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 in tournament history.

That has led to perhaps the most unanticipated grouping to ever meet in the national semifinals.

But will this Cinderella-style draw be enough to reel in a substantial audience both on television and on the ground in Houston? Or does the Final Four need a national brand to have truly national appeal?

"More people tune in when there are recognizable name brands, generally," said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas. "There may be exceptions to that. But people say, ‘Is it good for the sport if Tiger Woods is dominating, when the ratings shoot through the roof?’ People claim to want something new, and when they get something new the ratings aren’t as high.".

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Already, several data points point to measurably diminished interest in these semifinals.

With an average of 9.1 million viewers, overall viewership in the tournament is down 6% from last season. That number dipped during the Elite Eight to 8.7 million viewers, a decline of 14% from last season, according to Sports Business Journal.

While viewership is up 5% from 2021, when the tournament was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, the numbers for the Elite Eight stand out given the uniqueness of the matchups: The regional finals were the first since expansion to not have at least one No. 1 seed.

For this year, at least, the smaller viewership for the Elite Eight paints a troubling picture of the possible audience for a Final Four that has no top-three seed for the first time in history and just one established national program in Connecticut.

But while the program has captured four national championships since 1999, even the Huskies may be more of a nouveau-riche power than the well-established bluebloods who took the same stage last April.

"The core destination number will be there," said Favorito, meaning the audience that tunes into the semifinals and final nearly regardless of the matchups involved.

"The question is how much that goes up from there for casual fans. We won’t know that until after Saturday. Will it be one of the top five ever? I think those days are long gone because of the attention spans and the way people engage."

Final Four ticket demand diminished

There's also a cold market for Final Four tickets.

As of Thursday, the average ticket price on the secondary market for the semifinal games was $819, a more than 25% drop from the 2022 tournament, according to the ticketing and analytics company Logitix. The average ticket price for the final was $415, down 28% from a year ago.

The drop in interest stands in contrast to the women’s Final Four, which began Friday in Dallas. Tickets to the women’s semifinals averaged $367, up 120% from last season’s tournament, and tickets to the finals average $351, an increase of 103% from 2022.

And in-person interest has been dipping since the early rounds of the men's tournament. Overall prices for tickets on the secondary market have dropped 42% and prices for tickets to the championship game have fallen 53% since the start of tournament play, according to the reseller TicketIQ.

As of Friday, the cheapest semifinal ticket on the secondary market was $137, making it the lowest get-in price since at least 2011, per TicketIQ.

"We tend to say every year that this might’ve been the best March Madness ever," said former Manhattan and New Mexico coach Fran Fraschilla.

"We all know that it comes and goes. I would say it this way: Every March Madness has unique story lines and sometimes the story lines, while outstanding, don’t match up with what the ratings on television might end up being. But who really cares? If you’re a true basketball fan, you really just love the journey."

A lack of heroes and villains

With last year's field as the most extreme example, stacking the Final Four with blueblood programs can often attract three different types of viewers.

There are the traditionally large fan bases associated with historic college basketball powers. There are dedicated but non-affiliated fans who will watch regardless, especially for Monday’s championship game. Then there are more casual viewers who tune in because of the notoriety of the teams involved — even if more often than not to wholeheartedly root against brands such as Duke or North Carolina.

“Where you have issues is the beauty of heroes and villains,“ Favorito said. “Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Villanova all make it. At some point, people either love them or hate them, and they watch them for both reasons. You really don’t have that here. You have really interesting stories, but you don’t have anybody to hate, which is unusual.”

Recent tournament history suggests that matchups matter when it comes to TV ratings and interest in the Final Four, as does the quality of the games themselves.

  • In 2006, the semifinal between George Mason and Florida drew 14.5 million viewers, an 8% drop from the semifinal between Illinois and Louisville played in the same time slot a year before.

  • The 2018 semifinal between Loyola-Chicago and Michigan had 13.4 million viewers across all platforms, a noticeable dip from the 14.7 million who tuned into the 2017 semifinal between Gonzaga and South Carolina.

Numbers for Virginia Commonwealth’s Final Four berth in 2011 and Butler’s back-to-back appearances in 2011 and 2012 could provide the deepest insight into what sort of audience will tune in for Saturday's semifinals and Monday's final.

  • The semifinal matchup between the Rams and Bulldogs in 2011 stands as the only true Cinderella-only pairing in Final Four history before this season. That drew a Nielsen rating of 8.3, roughly in line with Butler's semifinal against Michigan State in 2010 and the semifinal between Kentucky and Louisville played during the same time slot in 2012.

  • The 2011 championship game between Butler and Connecticut had 20.1 million viewers, an almost 20% drop from the audience for the 2010 championship game between the Bulldogs and Duke.

Part of that dip from 2010 to 2011 can be attributed to the quality of the games themselves. The Huskies beat Butler 53-41, with the Bulldogs shooting a championship game-worst 18.8% from the field. The year before, Duke won 61-59 in one of the most thrilling championships in recent history.

"That’s the luck of the draw. The name brands can make it here, but they just have to win," Bilas said. "But there’s no good or bad for the tournament. Oftentimes, we’re all prisoners of the moment. You like to draw conclusions from one data point, and this year’s Final Four is one data point.

"But last year we had four bluebloods in the Final Four. What conclusions do you draw from that, that you have to be a blueblood to reach the Final Four? And this year you have three first-timers and non-name brands. They’ve all been good, but it doesn’t create the same kind of traditional buzz that you have in the Final Four."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Final Four lacks star power, but will compelling stories draw fans?