The Game of THIS Century?

As much as I hate to admit it, I remember watching the men’s college basketball game billed as The Game of the Century.  Our friend Wikipedia recounts exactly what it was and why it was so capable of turning people like me into lifelong college basketball afficionados, not to mention light the flame that effectively turned into the conflagaration we are seeing rage this weekend:

In men’s college basketball, the Game of the Century was a historic National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) game between the Houston Cougars and the UCLA Bruins played on January 20, 1968, at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. It was the first NCAA regular season game broadcast nationwide in prime time. It established college basketball as a sports commodity on television and paved the way for the modern “March Madness” television coverage.[1]

The game was televised nationally via a syndication package through the TVS Television Network, with Dick Enberg announcing and Bob Pettit providing color commentary.[4] Morgan had insisted to TVS owner Eddie Einhorn that TVS use Enberg, the Bruins’ play-by-play announcer.[5][6] Einhorn paid $27,000 for the broadcast rights on TVS.[7] TVS signed up 120 stations, many of which would preempt regularly scheduled network programming.[8] The basketball floor actually came from the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.[4]

With two minutes remaining in the game, the score was tied at 69 after the Bruins’ Lucius Allen made a pair of free throws.[5] Hayes took a shot and was fouled by Bruins reserve Jim Nielsen.[4] Hayes, playing with four fouls in the second half, scored two free throws. The Bruins still had time to score, but an attempted basket by Allen would not drop. On the last possession, UCLA’s All-American guard Mike Warren committed a rare mental error deflecting out of bounds a pass meant for UCLA’s star shooter Lynn Shackelford, who was unguarded in the corner.[4]

In the end, the Cougars pulled the upset, 71–69, ending the Bruins’ 47-game winning streak.

I vividly recall watching that game with my dad on our 12″ black-and-white bedroom portable on Channel 11, which would carry the syndicated afternoon games of Pete Maravich on cold Saturday afternoons that competed with Channel 4’s ECAC games, which provided Marv Albert with some of his first TV work.  The prime time window for the game in the then-new Astrodome, with its massive scoreboard and space-like sound effects, were heightened in an atmosphere where thousands of fans sat on field-level bleachers to watch the game that transpired on that borrowed court plopped down in the middle of the turf-covered infield.  It changed who, what and how a generation would watch and appreciate college basketball forever.

Tonight, I’ll contend a similarly seminal event will take place at the other end of Texas, in Dallas’ American Airlines Arena.  Once again, an unbeaten #1 team will take on an upstart #2 team,  The #2 team just happens to have the recently-named AP Player of the Year, however, and, just as importantly, growing national appreciation,  NBC5 Chicago’s Eric Mullin explains:

The best player in the country against the best team in the country.

Caitlin Clark and the No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes will meet Aliyah Boston and the undefeated No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks in the 2023 women’s NCAA Tournament Final Four.

The highly anticipated showdown will come just days after Clark was named AP Player of the Year over Boston, who won the award last season.

Clark powered the Hawkeyes to their first Final Four trip since 1993 with a historic performance. The junior guard tallied the first 40-point triple-double in March Madness history against No. 5 Louisville. And it may take another historic performance from Clark for Iowa to reach its first ever national championship game.

That’s because the Hawkeyes are up against a program that hasn’t been beaten since March of last year. Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks are a perfect 36-0 this year as they eye a second straight national title. Just five of their 36 games have been decided by single digits in what’s been a dominant title defense.

That historic performance by Clark, in prime time on Monday night on the first day in nearly four and and half months where no men’s college game was played (and, yes, I’m including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), actually drew more viewers (2.5 million) than ANY NBA game shown on ESPN.  All indications are that that number will be toppled tonight, and with the final airing on ABC Sunday afternoon, the first time a women’s championship game will be telecast on a broadcast network in 28 years, even Friday’s number could fall, given either Clark or a 37-0 team will be competing.

And should LSU defeat Virginia Tech in tonight’s opening Final Four game, the Tigers will bring to that TV audience college basketball’s most NIL-friendly personality, who has carved out a significant and lucrative social media presence, as’s Zoe Collins Rath reported:

A new report from SponsorUnited shows that LSU star Angel Reese has the most NIL deals of any college basketball player, and she can find her way into more. 

Reese is fifth among all college athletes with the total amount of deals at 17. Her sponsorships include McDonald’s, Xfinity, Wingstop and recently, JanSport, the backpack company.

According to On3, a website that tracks NIL deals and money, Reese’s total NIL valuation is $392,000. She has a following of 1.1 million people across Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. That goes into making her the ninth highest-paid woman in college sports. The highest is LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne with $3.4 million and the sixth-highest is Reese’s teammate, Flau’jae Johnson, whose valuation is $669,000.

Part of Reese’s brand is her nickname, “Bayou Barbie.” Reese has said she likes wearing her lashes, getting her nails done for games and wearing pink. As a way to further this brand, she and her team are attempting to trademark “Bayou Barbie” so she can sell her own merchandise.

And all of this just happens to be happening as a long-standing deal between NCAA and ESPN that worked the women’s college rights in with 28 other sports is expiring, And, to their credit, the NCAA is actually working with outside experts to capitalize on all of this going forward.  As Eric Prisbell of On3+ reported this week:

In the current deal, signed in 2011, the rights for the women’s tournament are packaged with the rights for 28 other NCAA championships (all but FBS football and men’s basketball). ESPN pays the NCAA all of $34 million annually for the package. How undervalued may that figure be? Two years ago, an independent law firm hired by the NCAA to investigate gender equity issues estimated that the women’s tournament rights alone are worth between $81 million and $112 million annually.

What’s the best strategy for the NCAA to avoid leaving significant dollars on the table in this rights deal? That’s the tricky part. It is working with consulting firm Endeavor to determine whether to unbundle the rights for the women’s tournament from the other championships and take it to market as a standalone property.  But while prominent women’s coaches, including South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, have advocated for unbundling the rights, several industry sources told On3 that the upcoming decision is anything but a no-brainer. 

It’s an evolving conversation.  The numbers speak loudly to support Staley.  As Prisbell further noted:

Interest in women’s basketball is increasing. This regular season was the most-viewed on ESPN networks in eight years, up 11 percent from last season. The NCAA tournament’s first round this season saw a 27 percent ratings increase from last year. And last year’s title game, matching South Carolina and UConn, averaged 4.85 million viewers, the most for a women’s title game since 2004. 

A similar performance, especially in a fragmented landscape, by a matchup of Clark or Reese with Boston and Staley would give all parties pause.  And don’t think that any of this escapes the eyes of competitors like FOX and NBC.  After all, it was NBC that picked up on the success of the UCLA-Houston game to expand its coverage of, first, the post-season and then, eventually, a national weekly package that eventually have Enberg, Billy Packer and Al McGuire endearing fame, paved the way for ESPN to opportunistically pick up coverage to early round post-season games during its infancy and, indeed, ultimately created March Madness for men.  In a year where the women’s tournament has finally reached the point where it has similar branding and added its own First Four, and with this transitional storyline occurring in a year when perennials like UConn and Tennessee aren’t even in the final eight, the signifance of this weekend’s games can’t be stressed enough.

While the quality of some of the play of women’s basketball can be disarming for fans of the men’s game, the strategy and playbook of the women’s game, which relies on more outside shooting, is intriguing.  And, let’s face it, it’s not like Joel Embiid is gonna rock eyelashes or nails like Reese’s any time soon.

You may not have been around for the Game of the Century.  But that was LAST century.  The Game of THIS one is arguably tonight.  Try and watch.



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