- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

Does Cinderella play in Peoria?

That’s the question CBS Sports executives are asking as George Mason prepares for its surprising appearance in the Final Four tomorrow against Florida.

The network hopes to ride the Patriots’ magical story to big ratings now that many of college basketball’s most popular teams already have been eliminated.

However, officials admit to being uncertain whether fans outside of the Washington area will watch.

“I must tell you, this is uncharted waters,” said Mike Aresco, senior vice president of programming. “This is a situation we’ve never had, having Cinderella in the Final Four. But we are hoping this is a very, very highly rated Final Four if the games are competitive.”

The tournament has been a ratings success so far. Games have averaged about a 7 rating, representing between 12 and 13 percent of all households with a television. Those numbers rival the high ratings seen in the mid-1990s.

George Mason’s win over Connecticut on Sunday, a victory that propelled the Patriots to the Final Four, was one of the most watched programs of the weekend in the D.C. area. The game scored a local 11 rating and was watched by 23 percent of the area’s television households.

Nationally, it scored a less-than-spectacular 6 rating and 13 share. However, that number rose to more than a 10 rating toward the game’s end, when it appeared George Mason would win.

And history shows that fans like games with a big underdog. Villanova’s upset of Georgetown in the 1985 championship game and N.C. State’s victory over Houston in the 1983 final are two of the biggest upsets in college basketball history — and two of the four highest-rated college basketball games of all time.

“No question, George Mason is a terrific story,” said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, who now owns a media consulting firm in New York. “It will be to CBS’s benefit to have this Cinderella story as part of the championship game.”

The bigger obstacle for CBS may be convincing fans to get excited about the other teams in the Final Four: UCLA, LSU and Florida. UCLA is one of the most storied basketball programs and likely will score big ratings on the West Coast.

But LSU and Florida — traditional football schools located in less-affluent areas — could be a tougher sell. Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State or Indiana would be more ideal participants from a ratings perspective, Aresco said.

“Normally in the Final Four, if you don’t have that big name of college basketball, you would say, ‘we’re going to struggle in the ratings,’ ” he said. “It’s one of the most unique Final Fours we’ve seen, but it also holds a lot of promise.”

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