Bill Gorman poses the question of whether the matchups in the NCAA matter in terms of the ratings. You'd think they should, and on that basis it seems like the Monday night final between Kansas and Memphis would fare the worst, where UCLA vs. North Carolina matchup would've fared better. I say, "I don't know". Whereas in baseball it's rather easy to predict that if the Yankees or Red Sox are in the World Series, it's a boon for the MLB (even if Boston is a "smaller" market team, Red Sox nation transcends Boston and Fenway Park by a large, large margin), but this is harder to predict with the NCAA finals. In 2006, Florida matched up against UCLA in the final and it drew but a scant 17.54 million.
Update April 8, 2008: The final drew 19.501 million viewers (click the link for more 2008 final game numbers).
UCLA is in an awfully big market, and indeed has alumni all over the place, but still last year's game again featuring Florida, but this time vs. Ohio State (a much, much smaller market than Los Angeles) it drew 19.56 million, over two million viewers more than UCLA. Why? This is purely speculation, but the Florida vs. Ohio state game featured at least four players who went on to the NBA, two of which were household names for anyone who'd watched the tournament: Joachim Noah on Florida and Greg Oden on Ohio State. Out of the almost 20 million who watched last year's final I think everyone had name recognition around Oden and Noah.
I'm not sure that will be anywhere near the case this year. I don't think the average casual sports fan could name anyone on either Kansas or Memphis. I'm pretty sure of the final four teams this year, in man on the street interviews only Tyler Hansbrough name would've had any type of name recognition. And Psycho-T and the Tarheels are not in the final which logically spells a ratings decline.
But maybe what these ratings correlate with mostly is how many people still had these teams alive in their NCAA bracket. As both teams are number one seeds, it's not unthinkable that there are quite a few, although my anecdotal information is that more people picked Kansas, UCLA, and North Carolina than Memphis.
I would be bold just for the heck of it and predict RECORD LOW RATINGS. Or at least the fewest average viewers ever, but I can't do it. So far worst performance in an NCAA final honors goes to the 2004 final between Connecticut and Georgia Tech. But I'm not predicting the lowest ratings ever, primarily on the basis of what else is on television. More on that in a second.
A couple of other data points. While overnight Nielsen ratings for sporting events are always lousy, comparing this year's overnight Saturday semi-finals ratings with last year's overnight numbers actually shows improvement. Both of these numbers are just for the primetime portion of the coverage, but last year averaged 12.48 million and a 4.2/14 (rating/share) in the 18-49 demographic. Last night's averaged 12.86 million and a 4.5/15. Update (April 6, 3:10PDT): Last years final primetime numbers were 14.1 million for semifinal coverage, leading many outlets to report a continued ratings downturn for the NCAA games, although when the final primetime numbers are released (we'll have them no later than Tuesday) I expect performance on par or better than last year for the primetime portion of the semifinals.
Again, overnight numbers are meaningless as last year's overnight number for the final game was 16.84 million. The actual final number for the game was 19.56 million, so you can see its no small margin of error sometimes when it comes to live sporting events.
While the finals will again face off (at least in the East) against Dancing with the Stars on ABC and Deal or No Deal on NBC, last year on FOX it faced off against 24 (which did a ‘below average' 10.85 million in the overnights). But there is no 24 this year, and that is what prevents me from predicting record low ratings for the NCAA final.
This year, in the 9p-10p timeslot for FOX is New Amsterdam, and while it has built some very loyal fans already, it's no 24 ratings-wise. In last Monday night's overnight ratings (usually far more accurate for serial drama, than live sporting events), New Amsterdam pulled in but 6.63 million viewers and just a 2.1/5 among 18-49 year olds.
Keep in mind, my pick to win it all was Georgetown, so when it comes to this sort of speculation your best bet is probably to bet against me. I don't think CBS will break a new record for fewest viewers ever, and it may just have FOX to thank for that.