Magazine article Variety

The Payoff of Playoffs

Magazine article Variety

The Payoff of Playoffs

Article excerpt

In the modern relationship between sports and television, two things are becoming crystal clean Rights fees will keep rising, and you can never have too many playoff games.

Indeed, as broadcast deals become richer, the appetite for sports content keeps growing. And despite tensions involving their natural resources - namely, the players - leagues are doing whatever they can to accommodate media demand, until it sometimes feels as if the playoffs never end.

The NCAA basketball tournament is about to begin, with the four "play-in" games that expanded last year's "March Madness" field from 64 contenders to 68. In similar fashion, Major League Baseball voted to revise its wild card format, admitting two additional teams to create two one-game playoffs at season's close.

Meanwhile, college football - the one sport to have steadfastly avoided a playoff system - has given signs of cracks in its resistance, with Big Ten conference officials expressing interest in exploring the possibility.

So much for university presidents' long-cited concerns about prolonging the season and the risk of placing extra stress on student-athletes - which, frankly, has never been quite as convincing as their commitment to the safety, comfort and big money of the traditional bowls.

There's no mystery why sports leagues, and the networks that coddle them, adore the prospect of airing as many games as possible with a playoff atmosphere. Regular seasons drag on for months, often becoming anticlimactic at the margins once top teams have separated themselves from also-rans.

By definition, playoff games count, bringing with them the welcome promise of higher ratings and enhanced drama. That's especially true with the NCAA tourney, whose suddendeath format has trumped a dilution of on-court quality as star players flee early for the pros.

Practically speaking, the NCAA already added to its playoffs with the proliferation of conference tournaments, which have further padded pre-NCAA tourney schedules. When UCLA amassed basketball titles in the 1960s and 70s, those teams played 30 games in all. Last year's champion, Connecticut, endured a 41-game season, including a grueling five-games-infive-days Big East Tournament.

In this context, it's no wonder the National Basketball Assn. s lockout-shortened season didn't truncate the playoffs, even if that meant its champ won't be crowned until past the start of summer. With the winner needing to survive four best-of-seven-game series, the last teams standing could play nearly half as many playoff contests as regular-season games.

Networks can't go wrong piling on playoffs, eager as they are to help offset rights deals that, in the case of the National Football League, soared by more than 60% in the most recent negotiations, to roughly $5 billion annually starting in 2014. …

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