College Basketball: America’s Favorite Niche Sport

Joe Healy argues that the one-and-done rule has done damage to college hoops. 

There is no more demeaning classification in the world of sports than that of the ‘niche sport’.

Taken at face value, it seems like that would be a positive thing to say. It makes it seem like the sport is really unique or exotic. But in reality, it just means that it’s not all that popular.

Generally when we talk about niche sports in this country, we are talking about sports like soccer or (sigh) tennis. These are sports that are wildly popular in other countries, but for whatever reason, haven’t hit the mainstream stateside.

A sport that doesn’t seem to fit that bill is college basketball. After all, college basketball is positively American. College athletics and the idea that college athletics should be a feeder system to professional athletics is as American as mom, apple pie and Chevrolet.

And yet, college basketball is perilously close to the line separating mainstream and niche sports.

If you think this sounds preposterous, think about all the friends you have that are sports fans. Do you have a single friend that considers themselves a huge, die-hard, watch-every-single-game college basketball fan? Unless you live in Lexington, Bloomington, or Lawrence, Kansas, I’m guessing the answer is no.

Most fans will watch a game or two when the season first starts, particularly if a game is played on an aircraft carrier, then they will slowly tune the sport out until conference tournament time when they will study up on who’s good and who isn’t just in time to turn in their March Madness brackets.

That doesn’t sound all that dissimilar to the millions of people that watch the occasional US men’s national soccer team game, but then find themselves watching World Cup games early in the morning every four years. Or the fans that couldn’t name more than five current tennis players, but tune in to watch the Wimbledon final because it occurs when there isn’t much else going on sports-wise and it’s Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal.

I’m sorry college hoops, I really enjoy you, but you’re a niche sport.

So how did we get here and who can we blame?

You can point your fingers squarely at the NBA.

The one-and-done rule is a joke in every way.

The irony here is that the rule was put in place in part to help college basketball. The thought was that college basketball was suffering from a talent drain because players could go straight from high school to the NBA.

In reality, it has done the opposite.

One-and-done players don’t stick around long enough for fans to really get attached and some even leave on bad enough terms that fans are left with a bad taste in their mouths after their “star’s” one disjointed, disinterested season. I’m looking at you, DeAndre Jordan.

It has also caused roster turnover to kick into high gear. When the casual fan has to basically start over in learning the names of all the big stars in your sport, they are a lot less likely to really throw themselves into the regular season.

I have even found myself falling victim to the roster turnover in college basketball. As I always do, I went to my local bookstore and dutifully purchased my college basketball preview magazine.

I’m trying my hardest to plow through it, but it’s tough when every top-25 team preview says something along the lines of “they are talented, but they are going to lean on a lot of unproven players.”

The NBA badly needs to go to the baseball model. Players can go pro straight out of high school, but if they go to college, they must stay at least three years.

That way, fans would have an opportunity to really get behind these players, programs would have a fighting chance of building a program on more than just a year-to-year basis and the NBA would be getting fewer players that are woefully unprepared for the professional game.

Do the right thing, David Stern. Change the rule. At this point, I’m afraid it’s the only thing that will keep college basketball from being just another niche sport we all pay attention to for one month a year.

Joseph Healy writes for The Fan Manifesto. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_On_Sports. You can follow the entire FanMan team here.



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