BYU study shows Cinderella teams draw well in basketball's Final Four; could the same be true in Division 4 football?

Published: Monday, July 29 2013 4:50 p.m. MDT

Wichita State's Carl Hall (22) and Louisville's Russ Smith vie for the loose ball during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game, Saturday, April 6, 2013, in Atlanta. New BYU research has found NCAA Cinderella teams, such as the 2013 Wichita State Shockers, command a much larger national TV audience than power programs at the Final Four.

Charlie Neibergall, ASSOCIATED PRESS

PROVO — Contrary to the predominant paradigm of college basketball sports marketing, the powerhouse programs are not the ones that get the better draw in the Final Four.

It turns out that people really do love the Cinderella story.

Could the same be true in college football if recent talk about a potential separate division for the top football-playing schools ends up happening? In a world where there is what is being coined "Division 4" football, would a Utah or BYU provide a boost in TV ratings if it made a four-team playoff?

BYU statistics professor Scott Grimshaw spent a decade studying granular, local-market basketball ratings data, and his research clearly demonstrates that for NCAA Final Four games, the only teams that consistently provide a significant ratings boost in the vast majority of media markets across the country are the little guys.

"No one really has the kind of national following that you'd hear of the New England Patriots or the Dallas Cowboys having," Grimshaw said, "with the exception of these Cinderella teams that are unique to basketball.

"Those teams, even though they're completely unknown before the tournament, develop a national following and deliver a TV audience that's more popular than you would ever predict them to be given that they're such small teams."

Grimshaw's research focused on local ratings data in 56 major television markets across the country rather than on the entire nation as a whole. According to Grimshaw, the granularity of the data allowed the researchers to see which teams would command a significantly larger television audience in markets generally disassociated with programs participating in the Final Four.

In other words, it allowed Grimshaw to test how Kansas vs. Kentucky (2011) compares with Butler vs. UConn (2010) where it mattered most — in television markets not in Kansas, Kentucky, Connecticut or Indiana.

The research found the only teams that provided a significantly larger audience on a national level was the team or teams labeled as the "Cinderella."

"I don't want to say people don't watch the top teams, it's just that these Cinderella stories are just as popular," Grimshaw said.

The study takes it a step further as Grimshaw's research extrapolates that an NCAA basketball championship game featuring two Cinderella teams would result in an 81 percent larger audience.

This study comes to light around the same time that college commissioners from the Big 5 conferences — the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 — have expressed frustration with the current state of the NCAA system.

Big 12 Commissioner Bud Bowlsby was the most vocal, saying during the league's media days that there is a need for "transformative change" in a currently top-level Football Bowl Subdivision where it has become too easy to become a member. Among the most pressing issues among the top conferences is the subject of paying players a stipend; the BCS schools favor such a move, but the legislation has been slowed by schools in the smaller conferences that couldn't afford to do so.

According to CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd, Bowlsby suggested teams from the Big 5 conferences could play among themselves in the future, a thought Alabama head coach Nick Saban shared the week before.

“If you do that, it's a zero-sum game,” Bowlsby said. “There are going to be winners and losers in there. … If you have only those five conferences playing each other, there's going to be half those people who are traditional losers.”

This follows Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany telling ESPN in April that his conference will no longer play teams from other divisions, like the Football Championship Subdivision.

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