Thursday marks the hyper-drive start of the NCAA tournament. It's the day workplace efficiency plunges — the day millions of fans tune in to college basketball after four months of tuning out.
March Madness is the greatest event in sports, three pulsating weeks of buzzer beaters and bracket busting.
But the four-month regular season is struggling for relevance in the crowded, football-dominated marketplace.
“It's like college basketball doesn't exist for the first few weeks of the season,'' said Greg Shaheen, the former NCAA executive vice president who oversaw the tournament for more than a decade.
“That creates a disconnect, because the (selection) committee says the games in November count the same as all the others, but the public doesn't believe they are relevant.”
Disparage the Bowl Championship Series all you want. It helped create what is arguably the best regular season in sports.
College basketball, on the other hand, has a forgettable regular season and an incredible postseason.
As the satirical news website The Onion noted in a headline Monday, one day after the brackets were unveiled: “Nation Gears Up For Start Of College Basketball Season.”
Or as Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes, a member Division I men's basketball committee (aka: the selection committee), explained:
“We've talked – both athletic directors and members of the committee – about how to bring more relevance to the regular season. It's a challenge we're all looking at.''
Without change, the situation will continue to deteriorate. The upcoming four-team playoff will undoubtedly increase the popularity of college football, and when the event expands to eight teams — it's inevitable — college basketball's regular season might as well not even start until mid-January.
Actually, that's not a bad idea.
“There has been some discussion of moving the calendar,'' Barnes added. “A lot of us struggle early in the basketball season because of the overlap with football.''
But before we examine a radical calendar change, let's address three other issues facing the sport.
1) The first is obvious but lacks an easy resolution: The one-and-done rule, which allows players to bolt for the NBA following their freshman season.
Many college officials, including Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, favor a policy similar to that used in baseball: Let the top prospects turn pro out of high school; those that opt for college must stay until they're 21.
Any shift at the NCAA level would require a change in the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. New commissioner Adam Silver favors increasing the minimum age to 20, which would force players to spend two years in college, but the Players Association must agree and is believed to be reluctant.
2) Several necessary changes to the regular season don't require NBA involvement, starting with the formation of a governing body that would be devoted entirely to ... college basketball.
“We need a stand-alone entity that's focus on the strategic, long-term interest of men's basketball,'' said West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, a member of the basketball committee.
The current governance structure is frayed. It includes the basketball committee, which runs the tournament and selects the field; the basketball rules committee; the basketball issues committee; and the coaches' association.
“There's a disconnect,'' Barnes said. “We need a conversation about how to bring the bodies together.''
3) The creation of a governing body is a good starting point, but it cannot be the only change.
Shaheen, who was dubbed the “tourney czar” during his 12 years in charge of March Madness, believes more high-profile non-conference games are needed to boost early-season interest and draw casual fans to the sport.
“There are approximately 5,400 games in the season and only 100 or 110 could be considered marquee non-conference matchups,'' he said. “The notion that only two percent of all the games fit that description is nuts.''
His suggestion: Reward teams that seek out marquee games, perhaps by reserving a handful of the tournament's precious at-large berths to the teams with the toughest non-conference schedules.
More marquee games would help, especially if they involve NBA-caliber players who have committed to spending three years in school.
But that wouldn't the solve college basketball's greatest problem: The football overlap.
The basketball season used to start when college football ended: Thanksgiving weekend. Now basketball tips off in early November and football ends in early December — one quarter of the basketball season conflicts directly with football during its sizzling stretch run.
Add the NFL regular season and playoffs, and college basketball barely registers on the mainstream sports radar until February: By the time the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, most teams had played two-thirds of their regular-season games.
The best long-term solution is to move the start of basketball back three or four weeks to avoid the steamroller that is the college football regular season.
Problem is, you can't eliminate the number of games because the schools need the ticket and gate revenue and the television contracts are based on existing inventory levels. (Cutting four games off the schedule for every team in the Pac-12, for example, would eliminate 48 broadcasts for the league's network partners. Not happening.)
At the same time, college officials are loath to condense the season while playing the same number of games. That would force teams to adopt NBA schedules, potentially increasing the risk of injuries and requiring more games during the end-of-semester break many teams take for final exams.
Hence the dilemma: The start of the season desperately needs to be moved but the game total must remain fixed.
Something has to give.
“If you start later,” Barnes said, “then what do you do with the end of the season? What do you do with the tournament?”
Here's what you do:
You move it.
You move the whole shebang.
Start the regular season the second week of December, end it in early April, and play the Final Four in late April.
March Madness becomes April Anarchy (or May-hem, depending how far back you move it).
It's the only solution to the football overlap — the only way to ensure the long-term relevance of the regular season.
There are obstacles, of course, but the most daunting is not CBS' broadcast of The Masters on the second weekend in April.
Under the terms of the current 14-year contract, Turner Sports, not CBS, is responsible for the majority of the $11 billion owed to the NCAA for the tournament broadcast rights. Turner, not CBS, would have greater influence in a date-change discussion.
What's more, CBS only shows The Masters for four hours on Saturday and five on Sunday. Early-round tournament games slotted for those windows could be played exclusively on the Turner outlets.
The potential conflicts with Turner's calendar are baseball games and the NBA Playoffs, which begin on April 19th this year.
Turner has three outlets for the NCAAs (TBS, TNT and truTV), and it splits the NBA playoffs with ESPN.
The tournament calendar could be set so only the final two weekends – that's just six days of competition — overlap with the NBA playoffs.
Perhaps the most daunting obstacle to a radical calendar shift, according to Shaheen, who negotiated the $11 billion deal, is the potential impact on advertising dollars.
“Budgets are based on (fiscal) quarters, and in the first quarter of the year, once you get past the Super Bowl, college basketball is the only game in town for the final six or seven weeks,'' he said.
“If you move the (regular-season) calendar back a month, you roll the tournament into the second quarter. Then you run into baseball games. That's an enormous advertising and broadcasting commitment.''
If advertisers spend less during the tournament, Turner and CBS would pay less for the tournament, which current account for approximately 95 percent of the NCAA's annual revenue.
How much less?
“The conversations haven't been developed to the extent that we've looked at the bottom line,'' Barnes said.
The impact might not insurmountable.
It's not like another major sport would suddenly appear in the February-March window to take advertising dollars away from college basketball. And by getting out from under football's shadow – more than half the games would take place after the Super Bowl – the regular season would gain relevance and eyeballs.
That, in turn, could increase the value of the TV deals between the individual conferences and their broadcast partners, potentially offsetting the decrease in payout in the tournament contract.
There's an added benefit to moving the calendar, one that would play well in the halls of academia: Starting the season on the second or third week of in December – after final exams — would make college basketball a one-semester sport.
It's better for the players, the teams, the fans and the sport.
In other words: It has no chance of becoming reality.
Jon Wilner is covers college football and basketball for Digital First Media at the San Jose Mercury News. Follow him on Twitter @wilnerhotline.