The NCAA Tournament is appointment viewing, for some, in a literal sense. A 2014 ESPN story dug into the phenomenon of men scheduling vasectomies and the prescribed downtime that follows around their basketball-viewing.

Not many go to such lengths to ensure unfettered tournament-viewing. However, millions will spend the coming weeks hiding tabs with the games streaming on their work computers, while others play hooky to get their annual hoops fix.

My own love of March Madness solidified when, as a middle and high school student, my dad always played along with the sudden illness that plagued me on the third Thursday and Friday every March.

Few sporting events command attention comparable to that of the NCAA Tournament, and the Big Dance occupies rarefied air in which the teams participating are somewhat inconsequential. The Super Bowl may be the most comparable event in that regard, and television ratings support the comparison.

And it’s through TV that March Madness grew from being viewed as the second-most important postseason basketball tournament in its infancy – the NIT was the more prominent event until the early 1950s – to captivating millions every spring.


Loyola’s run to the 1963 national championship ranks among the most culturally consequential moments in basketball. The Ramblers roster that featured four Black starters faced Mississippi State in the “Game of Change,” a tournament matchup against an all-white SEC squad, played three years before the more famous Texas Western title-game defeat of Kentucky.

The ‘63 Ramblers have received more of their due in recent years, from meeting with President Obama on the 50th anniversary of their championship, to the production of the documentary The Loyola Project, which began touring colleges in February.

The 1963 tournament was also consequential as just the second all-time and the first since 1954 to air on national television. From Don Weiss’ March 19, 1963 Associated Press report:

“A spokesman said Sports Network Inc., an independent [company] which bought package telecast rights for the 1963 tournament, expects up to 140 television outlets to carry the [national championship game between Loyola and Cincinnati], which begins at 9:35 p.m. EST.

‘More than 100 stations already signed up and we’re told the figure could reach 140,’ the spokesman said. ‘Sports Network estimates that the telecast will be available to at least 90 per cent of the nation’s viewing audience.’”

Sports Network Inc., the brainchild of Richard E. Bailey — an executive Sports Illustrated deemed the “Maitre d’ of Sports TV” — set the groundwork of what postseason basketball coverage could be. SNI’s initial ambitions went beyond airing just the title game to a coast-to-coast audience.

Weiss also reveals that the Sports Network planned to air the national semifinals between Duke and Loyola, and Cincinnati and Oregon State, “on a regional basis.”

Until a half-decade later, “college basketball generally was a regional activity,” per a 1986 Randy Minkoff article for UPI. The 1967-68 season turned the sport national and laid the foundation for the March Madness TV spectacle with the expansion of nationwide semifinal coverage.

The ‘68 semifinals and national championship were also the last tournament games syndicated through Sports Network, Inc., marking a turning point in the event’s growth.


March Madness is synonymous with CBS, and vice versa, after four decades of partnership. But so much of what shaped the modern Tournament is owed to its days on NBC.

Sports Network. Inc.’s success, coupled with improved technology, made live sports much more attractive to the major networks. NBC was the first to buy NCAA Tournament rights, and did so commensurate with changes that laid the framework for the modern postseason.

NBC was actually in front of Sports Network on the tournament, having aired La Salle’s 1954 championship win over Bradley. Sixty-five percent of homes owned a television in 1954, exponentially more than 15 years earlier during the first NCAA Tournament – which, coincidentally, concluded a month before NBC television hit the airwaves with President Franklin Roosevelt’s address from the World’s Fair.

College basketball debuted on NBC not long after on February 28, 1940. Pitt’s 57-37 win over Fordham at Madison Square Garden reached somewhere around 400-1,000 viewers, per The game aired on W2XBS, an experimental channel that later evolved into WNBC.

No word if Pig Virus coached early-era basketball commentators on proper delivery of the call letters.

Nearly 30 years later, about 95 percent of American homes included a TV, NBC was firmly established as one of the pillars of the medium, and the network invested in the growing national profile of college basketball.

NBC purchased Tournament broadcast rights in 1969 after Sports Network Inc.’s success with syndication, but the Tournament itself was less of a driving factor than the revenue there was to be made in basketball made evident in 1968.

In that pivotal 1967-68 season, before SNI opted to distribute the national semifinals, Eddie Einhorn’s upstart TVS aired a regular-season matchup between UCLA and Houston at the Astrodome. Einhorn worked to bring college hoops to radio about a decade earlier, and his efforts to make the transition to television in the 1960s were so vital, the headline of his obituary in The New York Times labels him “a Creator of College Basketball on TV.”

That Einhorn’s contributions to the game returned to the spotlight in February 2016, about a month before the NCAA held the Final Four across the walkway from the Astrodome at Houston’s NRG Stadium, feels like cosmic poetry.

It was in that park 38 years earlier that with Einhorn at the controls, the game changed.

The No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 2 Houston “Game of the Century” lived up to its billing. Elvin Hayes led the Cougars past a seemingly unbeatable UCLA bunch with (an injured) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We have the Game of the Century to thank both for proving the viability of domes for marquee college basketball — the nearly 53,000 in attendance prompted the NCAA to adopt the Astrodome for the 1971 championship — and demonstrating the power of televised hoops.

From Minkoff’s 1986 article, legendary broadcaster Dick Enberg explained:

“Once the game got underway, Eddie was taking phone calls and literally writing out 30-second spots from advertisers who called us at courtside to take an ad for the second half.”

From frantic ad placement made mid-game, to a venture generating almost $1 billion annually…

Statistic: National TV advertising spending during NCAA Men's Basketball Championship (March Madness) from 2015 to 2019 (in million U.S. dollars) | Statista
Find more statistics at  Statista

…and one on which marketers build entire campaigns. Take, for example, the Capital One-funded exploits of Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Barkley, and Spike Lee, which have become part of the Madness in their own way.

And, if you still have Neon Trees’ “Everybody Talks” stuck in your head 10 years after the 2012 NCAA Tournament, know that you aren’t alone.

Einhorn quipped to The New York Times in 2013 that “I didn’t know it would ever get this big,” he said. “But it shows I was right.”

One need not wait until 2013 to understand the magnitude of Einhorn picking up the Game of the Century broadcast 45 years earlier. The impact was felt two months later when the semifinals – including a Houston-UCLA rematch – aired nationally. Then stepped in NBC, acquiring the rights the next year and ushering in a transformative decade for broadcast basketball.

NBC aired the Tournament through each of its evolving incarnations throughout the 1970s, giving it both its first network TV home and outlining the blueprint for Madness.

The Peacock still holds the highest single-game rating in tournament history with its broadcast of the 1979 final between Larry Bird-led Indiana State and Magic Johnson’s Michigan State. A staggering 24.1 rating with more than 35 million TV viewers foreshadowed the transformative presence the Magic-Bird rivalry had on the NBA throughout the 1980s.

Magic and Bird gave the pro league a desperately needed infusion of energy and made the NBA more mainstream in the process. In the late 1970s, when Bird and Johnson were first settling into the college ranks, the amateur games on NBC attracted larger TV audiences than the pros on CBS.

A March 1981 Field Enterprises syndicated column by Gary Deeb credited “the less predictable style of play” for college basketball’s popularity – an assessment that applies to the continued popularity of March Madness today. The NBA is home to the top fraction-of-a-fraction of hoopers in the world, who are thus so good to the point of being mechanical.

The structure of the NBA postseason is also designed in such a way that the best team will at least reach The Finals, if not win it. It’s an ideal setup for determining a champion, but often lacks the dramatics inherent with the upsets that define March Madness.

Five years before Magic and Bird commanded the championship game-stage, the tournament itself changed in ways that guaranteed the event itself would be an attraction.


A convincing case could be made that the 1974 Tournament is the most pivotal in history. For anyone making such an argument, J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts’ book The Road to Madness offers essential support.

Their detailed history of the last NCAA Tournament to feature only conference champions and select independent programs includes insight into NBC’s backing of the event, which initially came with a price tag of $500,000 for two years.

That figure doubled by 1972, but was still a pittance for the return-on-investment. Walker and Roberts write:

“The 1973 tournament finals, telecast for the first time in prime time on a Monday evening, attracted an estimated 39 [million] viewers in 13[.58 million] homes, more than any other previous college or professional basketball game. ‘NCAA Basketball is one of the outstanding packages in television sports today,’ NBC vice president Chet Simmons commented in 1974. “It’s one of the most prestigious events covered by the major television networks.’”

The culminating rounds in 1974 featured a David-and-Goliath story with the UCLA juggernaut nearing the end of its dominance, a local team (NC State, playing in Greensboro), and a future voice of March Madness in Al McGuire.

McGuire coached some outstanding Marquette teams in the ‘70s, peaking with a 1977 national championship. In ‘74, he guided Marquette to Greensboro and the title game with panache.

The Road to Madness explains that McGuire won not through strategy – he left that part of the game up to assistants – but with psychology.

“I’m the guy that comes in here and gets people five feet off the ground and ready to go through the wall,” he told reporters.

Retired from coaching and transitioning to TV as the 1970s gave away to the ‘80s, his boisterous style reflected cultural shifts; less Dick Cavett and more Joan Rivers. McGuire is even responsible for one of the most important branding items associated with the Tournament, albeit indirectly: An article in 1975 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer coined the label “Final Four” in reference to Marquette’s 1974 season.

Indeed, the ‘70s provided all the right conditions for exponential growth with the ubiquity of TV, the expansion of the Tournament field in 1975 to add at-large teams and thus increase the number of games played as well as the prospects for upsets, the debut of the term “Final Four,” and the proliferation of bona fide stars.

Semifinals and championships of the decade featured revolutionary players like Jacksonville’s Artis Gilmore, St. Bonaventure’s Bob Lanier, UCLA’s Bill Walton, North Carolina State’s David Thompson, and peaking with the Magic-Bird title tilt of ‘79.

Star power extended beyond the hardwood and onto press row, as well.

March Madness appeals to our emotions and our senses, and the sound through the broadcast is vital to both. NBC put together a veritable dynasty at the end of its run with the Tournament.

“[A]nother major factor is the NBC announcing team,” Deeb wrote for UPI. “Play-by-play man Dick Enberg, flanked by color commentators McGuire and Billy Packer…are an electrifying combination on the air. As the basic describer of the action, Enger is suitably enthusiastic though properly objective and accurate. On the other hand, McGuire and Packer usually sound like a pair of basketball freaks carrying on a sometimes angry argument over the merits of the game.”

NBC assigning the trio to the Final Four gave the event a distinct identity; a voice uniquely its own. CBS has done likewise with Jim Nantz, whose play-by-play is a sound as attached to the championship as “One Shining Moment.”

Deeb’s column in response to CBS outbidding NBC for future tournament contracts by $6 million lamented the loss of the Peacock’s signature sound.

“A college basketball telecast without Al McGuire,” Deeb wrote, “is like pizza without tomato sauce.”

CBS opted to replicate NBC’s winning taste not through cheap imitation, but borrowing some of the best ingredients.

Packer moved to CBS and was the love-him-or-hate-him straight-man on Tournament calls through 2008. McGuire also went to CBS and contributed to the soundtrack of March.

His “Holy mackerel!” when Georgia Tech’s James Forrest hit a turnaround 3-pointer under duress to upset USC turns 30 this year. Generations later, it remains one of the most iconic calls in tournament history and is replayed today.

CBS ultimately brought on all three of the big NBC Tournament trio with Enberg’s addition in 2000. Befitting the unpredictability of March, Enberg’s final tournament call in 2010 featured an underdog West Virginia team upsetting a Kentucky squad with future NBA All-Stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.


This year marks the 40th anniversary of an NCAA Tournament that stacks up with the ‘74 edition in terms of historical impact.

The 1982 edition concluded at the Superdome – the same venue that will host this year’s Final Four – unofficially beginning the move to football stadiums permanently. It was the first domed Final Four since ‘71, but six of the next 11 were held in such sites.

“March Madness” entered into the public vocabulary in 1982 thanks to Brent Musburger, by way of Henry V. Porter.

And there in New Orleans, freshman Michael Jordan hit North Carolina’s championship-sealing shot and unintentionally launched basketball’s most important career into the national spotlight.

Jordan’s game-winner also capped the first Tournament on CBS, where the event’s remained since.

The Eye has adapted with the myriad changes to media consumption and distribution over these last years – some of those changes already on the horizon in 1982. That’s the same year that Linda Barrett lamented to Stacy Hamilton, “In Ridgemont? We can’t even get cable TV here, and you want romance.”

Romance may still be hard to find today, but cable TV subscribers grew by almost 30 million from 1982 to 1990. With more and specialized channels available, and the NCAA Tournament expanding in 1985 to 64 teams, the ‘80s opened a new frontier to basketball broadcasting.

ESPN helped both NBC and CBS boost basketball’s profile with coverage from 1980 through 1990. That partnership foreshadowed the record-smashing alliance between CBS and Turner forged in 2011, when their combined properties placed every single Tournament game on basic cable.

For those who may have only started paying attention to March Madness since 2011, you don’t know the struggle. Sure, the modern setup may not be completely painless; confusing truTV with CorncobTV or remembering where it falls on a cable package or streaming service has become such a common complaint the network leans into the joke with its advertising.

But no longer being beholden to live cut-ins from a regionally dictated broadcast might be the most liberating innovation in sports broadcasting of the last 20 years. That it’s not tied to a single provider, as the Mega March Madness pay-per-view package of the 2000s was to DirecTV, is another win for the viewer.

It’s also an undeniable win for ViacomCBS and Turner. Among the changes to media CBS and partners have had to navigate over the last 40 years, and perhaps the most significant, is the fracturing of audiences with more viewing options.

With a contract extended into 2032 and expected to net $1.1 billion annually beginning in 2025 per 2016 estimates, March Madness will remain a fixture for a ravenous audience.

So plan your workday streaming, your seasonal illness, or your vasectomies accordingly.

About Kyle Kensing

Kyle Kensing is a sports journalist in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter The Press Break at