Would A Kentucky-Duke NCAA Final Be The Highest-Rated Ever?

Ben Cohen of The Wall Street Journal wrote a short piece on Sunday night saying that it was time for this NCAA Tournament to just cut to the chase and give the public what it wants–a Kentucky-Duke battle for the national championship. Earlier in the weekend I had texted a couple friends to throw out this hypothetical–would a Kentucky-Duke title bout get the best TV ratings in NCAA history?

I want to preface this by saying that as a Wisconsin fan, I’m hardly thirsting for the ‘Cats and Blue Devils to play on Monday Night. If I could get my way this weekend, the Badgers would be joined in Indianapolis by Wichita State, Gonzaga and Michigan State. But from a standpoint of marquee appeal and historical storylines, it’s tough to imagine a matchup much richer than Kentucky and Duke.

This is what a Kentucky-Duke final has going for it…

2015 Final Four*Let’s start with the obvious, which is the huge brand name appeal of both programs, extending well beyond their fan bases. Each incites emotional reactions among fans, both good and bad. The reasons for the passion are different, but it’s intense.

*Both teams would be pursuing history–Kentucky, of course, would look to become the first unbeaten national champion since 1976. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski would be after his fifth national championship, tying him for second on the all-time list.

*Kentucky would be looking to get its perfect season at the expense of Coach K, who was an assistant at Indiana in 1975, working with all the players who achieved perfection the next season. Krzyzewski would be aiming to tie Adolph Rupp on the all-time list…who coached at Kentucky.

*Then there’s all the highlight footage that would hype the game. The Grant Hill-to-Christian Laettner pass and shot that won the 1992 East regional final for Duke over Kentucky would lead the list. But there’s also Kentucky’s rally from 17 down in the second half to beat Duke in the 1998 Southeast Regional final. There’s the Wildcats’ Jack Givens going off for 41 points to beat the Blue Devils in the 1978 national title game. Great moments, every single one.

So would all this add up to the highest-rated national championship game ever? The current standard is the 1979 title game with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, when Magic’s Michigan State team beat Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores for the crown.

March Madness was just “the NCAA Tournament” back then, and not a three-week national sports feast–and we can be reasonably assured that a lot of bracket pools would be on the line with two such chalk favorites playing in the championship game. All of which augurs in favor of a ratings record.

But on the flip side, the world of television has changed. In 1979, people had a choice between CBS, ABC and NBC and that was it, save for maybe a documentary on PBS. Nowadays, there’s everything under the sun available to watch, plus what’s on your DVR. It seems fair to guess that in 1979, anyone even vaguely interested in the basketball game probably watched it. Today, that fringe viewer probably goes somewhere else.

My own personal guess–Kentucky-Duke would narrowly nip Magic-Bird for the honor of highest-rated national TV game ever. It’s also my personal guess that this is the title game we will actually get–but as my bracket record attests, that’s the surest evidence that we’ll probably never get to find out.