Mainstream sports media coverage of college basketball ahead of the NCAA tournament often seems to focus in on one player, and that can be particularly obnoxious if the player doesn’t seem deserving of that. Consider ESPN’s incredible focus on Trae Young last year, which wound up looking especially silly after Oklahoma only received a 10 seed to the NCAA tournament and lost to Rhode Island in the first round, and after Young only wound up going fifth overall in the draft (to the Atlanta Hawks, after they traded their third-overall pick to the Dallas Mavericks for the fifth-overall pick and a future first-round pick; the Mavericks used that third pick to select Luka Doncic).
But while this year’s seen a similar focus on Zion Williamson and Duke, it feels much more deserved. And that’s seen some ESPN writers like Myron Medcalf not only push back against claims they cover Zion too much, but say they’ll keep doing it:
"They cover Zion too much." You gotta understand I don't care if you think that. Zion Williamson is the greatest show in college basketball. And we have the numbers to prove you care about him. I'm going to write about, analyze, talk about, discuss Williamson and Duke all season.
— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) February 20, 2019
And that’s a defensible stance. For one thing, there is incredible interest in Williamson and Duke, and that’s buttressed not only by whatever internal ESPN numbers Medcalf is referencing here (likely pageviews, but it could also include social engagement for pieces or video segments about Williamson and Duke), but also by external numbers. As AA’s Sean Keeley wrote Tuesday, Duke has been even more of a draw than normal this year (at home and on the road) in terms of both attendance and ticket prices, and that’s also been reflected in TV ratings and social media numbers. Michael Smith of Sports Business Journal dove into the latter Wednesday ahead of Duke’s hotly-anticipated home game against North Carolina:
Duke basketball already had the largest social-media following among team accounts before Williamson arrived, but the combination of the two has vastly accelerated their numbers. Williamson became an Instagram star in high school, and since officially joining Duke 7.5 months ago, the school’s men’s basketball Instagram account has added 285,000 followers, according to data from Duke Athletics Creative Dir Dave Bradley. That is more than the total number of followers for every basketball program but two — UNC and Kentucky. Williamson’s Instagram account has grown even more since July, adding 680,144 followers on his personal account, a 42% increase to 2.3 million. His 16.6% interaction rate on Instagram easily outpaces the basketball accounts for Duke (3.67%), UNC (3.60%) and UK (1.86 %).
…No one drives traffic and interest like Williamson — nine of the Blue Devils’ top 10 Instagram posts since July featured Williamson prominently, and four of the top 10 were exclusively about him.
That piece also notes that the Duke men’s basketball Instagram account gained 72,200 followers from July 2016-February 2017 and 60,400 from July 2017 to February 2018, so the Williamson effect has been much greater than their previous gains. But, of course, just because something draws attention doesn’t mean it’s worth endlessly covering; the round-the-clock 2017 coverage of LaVar Ball is a great example of when networks should have dialed back regardless of the numbers they were seeing, and the coverage of Young last year also likely saw some good numbers, but wound up being incredible overkill and annoyed many fans.
Williamson and Duke are a legitimate story, though. The Blue Devils are currently #1 in both the AP and coaches’ polls, the seventh time in 16 weeks this year they’ve held the top AP spot, and they’ve been in the AP top three since the preseason poll (where they were fourth). Vegas Insider has them as the current favorite (at 7/4) to win the NCAA tournament. And Williamson himself is widely expected to go first overall in the NBA draft, so much so that some mock draft pieces are headlined with things like this from NBC Sports Washington: “2019 NBA Mock Draft 2.0: Who’s after Zion Williamson?”
That’s a big change from last year’s Young coverage. Few had Young at the top of the draft, but there was much less general sports media coverage of the players who actually went #1 and #2, DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III (who also played for Duke, so this isn’t just about the team Williamson is on). So there’s actual news value to covering Williamson and Duke, both from a NCAA perspective and a NBA perspective (and that’s something important to keep in mind with general sports media coverage of NCAA basketball, as compared to sport-specific media covering college basketball; some of the general coverage is geared at NBA fans who don’t particularly watch or care about college basketball, but are interested in finding out at least a bit about the likely top picks).
Of course, there can still be overkill, and there can still be ways for networks to slip up with their coverage of Duke and Williamson. In-game, there’s potential for backlash if they focus on Williamson too much and not the rest of the Blue Devils’ team, or if they spend too much time talking about the draft and not enough on the current game, or if they overly ignore Duke’s opponent. With highlights, features, and debate-show segments, there’s also peril from flooding the zone; just because Williamson and Duke are a legitimate story, that doesn’t mean that hearing Stephen A. Smith say the same thing about him daily is valuable or justified.
Similar arguments hold true for print and digital media; Williamson and Duke are an important story, and one that should be covered, but that doesn’t mean every breath Williamson takes needs a full article, and it doesn’t mean that every NCAA basketball story needs to revolve around him. But, compared to so many other things that have drawn incredible amounts of ceaseless sports media coverage, Williamson’s Duke tenure is actually a good story, and an important one. And if general sports media feel the need to focus on one player and one team ahead of the NCAA tournament, at least this time around has seen them pick a relevant player and team.