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. —Scott Grimshaw, BYU statistics professor
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.
"We think it's good for the fans, we think it's good for the players. It strengthens our schedule from the perspective of the postseason, and it binds the conference together in a powerful way," Delany said.
If these scenarios come to light and only top-conference programs play against top-conference programs, who then becomes the Cinderella team?
In the case of Division 4, teams that perennially sit at the bottom of BCS conferences would fit that bill.
Utah, a recent addition to the Pac-12 that has struggled in its first two years in the league, could classify as a Cinderella team if it reached the four-team playoff system that debuts next season. Others, like basketball powers Kansas and Duke, which struggle on the gridiron, would achieve glass-slipper status if they were playing for a national title.
As for independent BYU or new Mountain West Conference member Utah State, would they even be included in a newly formed Division 4?
During the 2012 regular season, the biggest names provided the best TV draws in college football. National powers Alabama and Notre Dame — which met for the national title at the end of the year — each appeared in four of the 15 nationally televised games that drew the best TV ratings, according to Sports Media Watch. The other four teams with multiple appearances in the top 15 games by TV rating are also well-known: Florida (three appearances), LSU (three), Michigan (three) and Georgia (two).
In the past four postseasons, four non-automatic qualifying schools have made BCS bowl games, including the 2010 Fiesta Bowl where WAC champion Boise State beat MWC champ TCU 17-10. That matchup drew an 8.2 Nielsen TV rating in the U.S. and had 13.8 million viewers.
Those numbers ranked fourth among the five BCS bowls that year, and fell well short of the BCS National Championship game, which featured known powers Alabama and Texas and drew a 17.2 rating and 30.8 million viewers. But it did beat out the Orange Bowl (6.8, 10.9 million), which featured two BCS teams, Iowa and Georgia Tech, who don't have the national following other BCS programs have.
The next season when TCU, again the MWC champion, played Big Ten winner Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, it drew the second-best postseason TV crowd, with an 11.3 rating and 20.6 million viewers tuning in. Only the national title game, featuring Auburn and Oregon, had higher numbers (15.3, 27.3 million).
But in 2012, when MAC champion Northern Illinois played national power Florida State in the Orange Bowl, that game drew the worst TV numbers of that year's BCS games, and fell behind two other bowls as well — the Cotton Bowl and the Capital One Bowl. Of the 20 BCS bowls in the past four seasons, it would rank 18th with its 6.1 rating and 10.6 million viewers.
One unique thing Grimshaw said was revealed in his findings was "in previous studies, (it showed) that to get a big audience, you need a close game with big-name teams and with stars. One of the things we found was that when it comes to basketball, it's not about the stars, which I thought was kind of interesting."
In a new college football division, could the bottom-rung teams that enjoy a Cinderella-type season that ends with a playoff appearance attract that same type of viewership?
If reformation takes place, the college football world will have its chance to find out.
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