ARLINGTON, Texas Everything is bigger in Texas, it s said, even the biggest postseason tournament in college sports.
This year s Final Four held Saturday and Monday at AT&T Stadium, home of Dallas Cowboys is one of Texan proportions: bustling, brawny, bursting at the seams and, above all else, bigger than ever before.
What we see this year is kind of the makings of a cultural phenomenon, said Paul Swangard, the managing director of the University of Oregon s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.
Viewership is up: This year s tournament is averaging 9.8 million viewers, the highest viewership in 21 years, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The games have been noticeably more competitive: The average margin of victory in Sweet 16 games, 6.5 points, was the lowest since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, according to Stats Inc.
I knew the tournament was going to be a wide-open affair this year, and that the team that played the best on a given night was going to win, said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who led the Shockers into the third round before losing to Kentucky. The tournament s always great, but honestly, this year 15 to 20 teams could win it. And you ve got four teams now that can win it.
The Final Four field is a who s-who of national elite: UConn, Kentucky and Florida have combined to win five of the last 10 national championships, while Wisconsin has reached the tournament in each of coach Bo Ryan s 13 seasons, the second-longest tournament streak in the robust Big Ten.
And in AT&T Stadium, the tournament will be housed in a 105,000-seat venue, one that could lead to a new Final Four attendance record currently at 75,421 fans, set in 2011 at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
The bar just keeps getting set higher and higher on an annual basis, said Dan Gavitt, the vice president of the NCAA tournament. Our hopes and expectations are that it will continue to be as compelling as it is year to year. But we re very pleasantly surprised that that is indeed the case again this year.
If this year marks an all-time high across three key areas attention, quality and reach the NCAA tournament has made increasing efforts to broaden its scope, adding at-large teams in an effort to create greater parity and holding the Final Four at more spacious venues, eschewing the smaller, cozier stadiums of the recent past.
Said Swangard, The tournament has seen nothing but momentum certainly over the last decade, but it sort of goes back to this longstanding effort from the NCAA to build equity around their basketball property.
Attempts at making a more unpredictable field have been wildly successful. The first full slate of the tournament s second round featured four overtime games, a new single-day record; the tournament has featured seven overtime games in total, tying the all-time record.
This year s Final Four field features only a single No. 1 seed Florida advanced as the favorite in the South Region, but UConn and Kentucky were a seven and eight seed, respectively.
Working with the committee, our staff is more than anything focused on just making sure there is fair, equitable competition that is above any kind of reproach in that regard, Gavitt said. The result is the incredible drama and competitiveness that we ve seen this year. That s a grand-slam home run.
But as it hits another high-water mark in North Texas, the NCAA views the perception that the tournament has reached its peak as bigger, better, more competitive, more popular than ever as motivation, Gavitt said, reveling in the challenge of personal one-upmanship.
It gets more challenging every year to improve upon something that s as big and special as it is, he said, but it s also something we love, that challenge to figure out ways to make it even better on an annual basis.
This Final Four marks the culmination of the postseason tournament at its best until next year, maybe.
This seems to be a balloon that continues to rise, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said. I think it s great for fans, it s great for universities, it s energizing.