Of March Madness Brackets and Brands

When it comes to March Madness, Turner Broadcast System president David Levy and CBS Sports chairman Sean McNamus are fond of telling that much of their gameplan for their companies’ combined coverage of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship was composed on the back of a napkin.

It must have been on high-quality stock. Now in the fourth year of CBS/Turner Sports' team approach, stemming from the parties' 14-year, $10.8 billion rights deal, the tourney is humming. Through the first week, the 2014 event averaged 9.2 million viewers on TBS, CBS, TNT and truTV, the most since 1993. NCAA March Madness Live, now in its second year with pay-TV authentication, counted 51 million live streams through the first week, already the most ever for the event.

While many of the favorites remain, the 2014 version of March Madness has left everybody’s bracket busted, perhaps to the delight of Warren Buffet. For their part, McManus and Levy over the years have often talked about the value of underdogs building excitement for the event by hitting a last-second shot that fells Goliath. However, both executives have also mentioned the value of the top programs, the college hoops brands that draw people to the event.

As the tourney resumes with Sweet 16 action, those colliding March Madness maxims will be put to the test. Some of college hoops most vaunted programs have been left to screen the action on their TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets, like the rest of us.

Among the missing: Duke and Syracuse, the respective alma maters of McManus and Levy. The Blue Devils were dispatched in the opening round by Mercer, before the Bears themselves were declawed by another relative upstart, the Tennessee Volunteers, one of the last teams to make the Big Dance. The Orange was squeezed by Dayton, which earlier cracked THE Ohio State Buckeyes. Two brands fired by the Flyers, who are making their first appearance in the Sweet 16 in 30 years.

Will Dayton make its way out of the South Region to become this year’s version of George Mason or Wichita State and reach the Final Four in North Texas? Their quest resumes on Thursday night versus Stanford, a powerhouse in many sports, if not necessarily men’s basketball. But the Cardinal’s current ascendance under former Duke guard Johnny Dawkins came at the expense of another stalwart, the Kansas Jayhawks.

The winner there would have to defeat more brands. Under Billy Donovan, the Florida Gators, the top seed overall, won back-to-back titles in 2006-07 and have been an Elite Eight fixture. They’ll have to eliminate college basketball’s ultimate brand past, the UCLA Bruins, which are resurfacing again under Indiana legend Steve Alford.

In the East Region, which will play out at Madison Square Garden for the first time in 53 years, there is the familiar. UConn, the odd team out in Big East and ACC realignment and now a member of the American, took down old foe, Villanova. Consider that a brand win for March Madness 2014, given the Huskies’ profiles steeled from three titles under former Coach Jim Calhoun, and his former charge Kevin Ollie manning the sidelines and Shabazz Napier a whirlwind on the court. Iowa State, not UNC, is their foe. The Cyclones -- even without third leading scorer Georges Niang, who broke his foot -- defeated the Tarheels in what was probably the second-best game of the tournament to date, the last-second clock debate notwithstanding.

Virginia and Michigan State are squaring off in the top half of this regional. The Cavaliers, which won the conference and tourney, is the lone ACC representative left in the field. The Cavaliers have not really being a major factor since the days of Ralph Sampson. For their part, the Spartans, which rose to prominence under Magic in 1979, are tournament perennials under Tom Izzo. With injuries healed, MSU is the choice of many to cut down the nets in Jerry’s World on April 7.

Out West, Arizona is the top seed and has burnished a decent brand cache over the years.  Their opponent, defensive-minded San Diego State, is emerging as this decade’s version of Gonzaga. The Aztecs are helmed by Steve Fisher, who was a party to Michigan’s Fab Five brand in the early 1990s.

The Arizona-SDS survivor will have to contend with Baylor or Wisconsin. The Bears have expanded their claim past Waco on the NCAA landscape, owing in no small part to the visual eye candy that is their neon green/yellow unis.  Bo Ryan’s Badgers have established their own brand image – one they’d like to shed as the perennial contender that hasn’t advanced to the next stage. With its best offensive club, is this the year Wisconsin takes the Final Four leap?

The Midwest features the aforementioned Volunteers, meeting Michigan. Last year’s runner-up, the Wolverines, like their football team, have hardwood followers and haters around the country. Turner/CBS executives have to be rooting maize and blue here.

Otherwise, what was expected to be the Bracket of Doom, with Duke the first casualty and Wichita State the second, will have almost fully imploded.  That’s not to say that the Wichita State’s loss to Kentucky was so shocking: Coach John Calipari always gets the blue-chippers and this year’s Wildcats may finally be living up to their exalted preseason expectations.  In fact, the consolation prize of Kentucky against defending champion Louisville -- a Bluegrass State rematch of the 2012 Final Four won by Cal over former Wildcats headman and 1996 champion Rick Pitino -- may be the most intriguing matchup of the tourney.

But from this perch, the tourney took a Nielsen hit with the Shockers’ ouster: Wichita State-Kentucky was the best-played game thus far. More importantly, the pursuit of perfection would have drawn casual viewers to the screen. Besides, it would have been nice to say that Bobby Knight’s undefeated 1976 Indiana Hoosiers was no longer the last team men’s hoops team to run the table.

Undefeated, especially from a mid-major, would have equated to strong brand awareness and interest.