It is widely known that the NCAA tournament is one of the most popular sporting events in the world each year. However, you may be surprised to know that the viewership fluctuates greatly each game, depending on a variety of factors. Some games, like 1 over 16 blowouts at 11 in the morning, have low ratings. However, there have been many games that have garnered huge viewership in the tournament.
There is no time that garners more viewers than the Final Four! Let’s take a look back at some of the most viewed NCAA Final Four games in recent history:
1999 Championship – UConn vs Duke
It might feel silly to look back on this and see these two teams going toe to toe for a national title as being anything other than common. However, despite consistently being a good program (Including developing future stars such as Ray Allen and Caron Butler, and later Kemba walker and Andre Drummond), this was actually Uconn’s first ever Final Four.
UConn went 34-2 in 1999 en route to the Final Four. They had to go through a stacked Big East Conference that included #9 St. John’s and #10 Miami, with both losses at home against rivals. One loss was to #16 Syracuse, and one was to the aforementioned Miami.
After a tight one point win in the first round of the Big East Tournament, the Huskies cruised to a Big East title, and locked in a one seed. The Huskies were not challenged much in the beginning of the tournament, except for 10 seeded Gonzaga getting within 5 points of them in the third round.
Duke, on the other hand, had a slightly easier go of things during their regular season. Only one other team in the ACC (#5 Maryland) was ranked in the top ten by the end of the season. This team also had four players selected in the first round of the anteceding NBA draft, most notably Elton Brand, who was selected #1 overall by the Chicago Bulls.
The lone regular season loss for the Blue Devils actually came in Anchorage, Alaska against Cincinnati. This loss was by 2 points, the end of a three day shootout in Anchorage. Other than that loss, Duke played close to flawless throughout the season.
This set the stage for one of the most anticipated games of the year. The upstart Huskies, who had never even reached the Final Four, were set to meet the perennial powerhouse blue blood Duke.
The game was back and forth until, with 5.4 seconds left in the game and Duke losing by 1, Trajan Langdon traveled, forcing his team to have to foul, and eventually putting the game out of reach after his team wasn’t even able to get up a shot. This game garnered one of the highest viewerships in history, with more than 26 million watching UConn cut down the nets for the first time.
1979 Championship – Michigan State vs Indiana State
You may be surprised to hear that the most watched Final Four game actually came 20 years before the 1999 game. While the ‘99 game’s immense viewership can likely be attributed to UConn’s first trip to the Final Four, this one was likely due to the emerging stars who met in it.
Any serious college basketball fan can probably guess who the star from Indiana State was, future NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird. For Michigan State, it was Magic Johnson. The 1979 Sycamore team was the greatest in school history, and finished the regular season undefeated, with Bird averaging 28.6 points per game, along with almost 15 rebounds. All the March Madness predictions had the Spartans going far, but few thought much of the Sycamores coming into the season.
Johnson’s Spartan team had a few ups and downs in the regular season, finishing with losses to #4 Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan, and #13 North Carolina. Johnson averaged 17.1 points per game, along with 8.4 assists.
This National Championship game, ironically, set the stage for many more rivalry games in the NBA (With the Lakers and Celtics). These two transcendent stars always drew a crowd, and stand alone in college basketball history in terms of viewership. This championship game garnered 35.11 million viewers. Those viewers got to see Johnson’s Spartans hand the Sycamore’s their only loss of the entire season by a margin of 75-64.
Note: Ratings via https://www.sportsmediawatch.com/ncaa-final-four-ratings-history-most-watched-games-cbs-tbs-nbc/