Eastman: College basketball is in serious trouble

College basketball graphic. - Multimedia Editor / Drew Peltzman

As a thought experiment, I gave a few of my friends who watch college basketball two simple commands. First, give me a top-five list of the best/most popular players in the sport right now. Second, name the top NBA prospect currently in college. I was met with blank stares and silence as they struggled to come up with an answer. 

Just five years ago, those two questions would have had easy answers. Stars like Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum, and Lonzo Ball created huge interest in the sport, putting college basketball at the forefront of the sports scene in America. Tens of millions of viewers watched the ever-popular March Madness tournament to see how future NBA stars would create their college legacy and set the tone for their future careers. 

However, in the last few years, something changed. The 2023 national championship game between UConn and San Diego State drew just 14.7 million viewers according to SportsMediaWatch.com. That ranked as the lowest-viewed championship game on record. The last three national championship games are in the bottom four of the least viewed championship games on record. It’s difficult to explain the sudden loss of viewership, but there are a few factors that have an effect. 

One reason for the loss of interest is the fact that the top talent no longer exists in the college game. More of the top draft picks are coming from overseas or domestic professional leagues, such as the G-League Ignite team. College basketball is hurt as a result, because they have fewer players to point to as future stars in the NBA, leading to less interest in the game. Victor Wembanyama would’ve been the most popular player in college since Zion, but the college game simply isn’t getting those types of marketable talents anymore.

Another factor is the lack of marketing around the top stars in college basketball. Take Cody Williams for example. If this name doesn’t ring a bell for you, you’re not alone. Williams is the consensus top prospect in the college game for the 2024 NBA Draft, yet he hardly gets any buzz in the media. A great way to judge popularity is by using Instagram followers as a barometer. Williams has just over 18 thousand followers on Instagram.

Back to the original question of who the most popular sport is right now, there is an obvious answer. Caitlin Clark is easily the most recognizable and most marketable player in the sport. In fact, the women’s game has done a much better job than the men’s in marketing their star talent. LSU teammates Angel Reese and Flau’Jae Johnson both have millions of followers on social media and according to On3.com, rank in the top 16 of highest-valued players in terms of NIL in all of college sports. UConn’s Paige Bueckers and TCU’s Haley Cavinder also come to mind in terms of popularity and name recognition in the women’s game.

These women have the talent and have been able to market themselves well to gain popularity in the sports world. The ratings are also up, as the 2023 national championship game between Iowa and LSU brought in 9.9 million viewers according to SportsMediaWatch.com. That made it the most viewed women’s national championship game of all time. 

While March Madness builds stars and storylines, college basketball still has an issue with generating interest in its product. The men’s game needs Caitlin Clark to make the face of their sport. It’s up to them to find the talent and market them effectively. Without it, the downward spiral of viewership will only continue.

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