Monopoly Alert: ESPN Now Wants March Madness

It’s probably not the biggest shock in the world, but ESPN really wants the NCAA men’s basketball tournament rights. You can’t blame them; it’s one of the most-watched TV spectacles every year, it stretches across three weeks and draws viewers & advertisers like nothing else outside of the Super Bowl. Still, CBS has owned the rights to the annual hoops escapade for so long that it’s hard to imagine a cable network breaking in to steal it away.

espn headquarters

(And the 2018 Final Four goes to, drum roll please … Bristol, CT!)

Well, prepare yourself folks. ESPN is going to to get it at some point, at least if ESPN President George Bodenheimer has anything to do with it. When asked by COLLEGE HOOPS JOURNAL whether or not his network would get back to covering the tournament, Bodenheimer’s answer was pretty unequivocal: “We would love to get back into the men’s tournament.”

In fairness, Bodenheim did raise the possibility of televising the tournament with CBS, which seems like a truly strange partnership, since ESPN is owned by ABC. Just because Bodenheimer and CBS President Sean McManus live in the same bucolic Fairfield County town doesn’t mean that the corporate entities they control will be happy doing business with each other.

Here’s the full context of Bodenheimer’s quote:

“You know, we televised the tournament long before anybody thought of televising the early-round games. It’s one of the things that catapulted ESPN in the mid-1980s. And we have an extremely deep relationship with the NCAA. … We televise every game of the women’s tournament, we get the Frozen Four, the lacrosse tournament … we would love to get back into the men’s tournament — and perhaps with CBS, somehow. They’re a fine company and we do many things with them, like sharing the Masters. We love college hoops. It’s a staple at ESPN for a quarter, and it’s a great tournament and a great sport.”

Short of television turning into a Soviet-style state run enterprise, it’s hard to see how those two could cooperate on a national event structure like that. But that could just be an entry foray that allows ESPN a level of coverage from which they could move up and take control of the entire event. You know, the way they did with ABC Sports. One day the logo on your screen says ABC, the next day it feels like you’re watching ESPN on network TV … because you are.

espn bodenheimer

(The man who will eventually take the NCAA Tournament from CBS)

Of course, the Worldwide Leader just signed a pact with the BCS that gets them the TV rights for the four major bowls & national championship game, which pulls that core away from FOX and makes some branch of ESPN (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNClassic) the televised home for a good 85 percent of all the bowl games you’ll watch in future holiday seasons. Enjoy that Toyota Gator Bowl over on CBS. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

Add to that the fact that ESPN televises the entire women’s tournament (yawn), the lacrosse tournament (an up-and-coming spectacle) and the College World Series, and, well, they’ve got just about everything else already.

The point can be made that ESPN getting the rights for the tournament might actually be a good thing. Their production quality is always significantly better than CBS’, or anyone else’s in American sports. Still, how do we know that would continue if they get have control of every event? And is it really healthy to have every significant event outside of the NFL (and some of the most significant NFL games, for that matter) on the same network?

The answer to those questions, of course, is “We don’t know” and “No”, which is precisely why Bodenheimer’s open lust for the NCAA tournament is troubling … and why it’s almost certainly a likely precursor to the network getting the rights one way or the other, sooner rather than later.

Hope you enjoy that red and black color scheme, folks. You’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.