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Closing Shot: Forty Years Of Madness

Since first airing the NCAA tournament in 1982, CBS has become synonymous with the Big Dance, and it all started with a deal made by an executive who could see everything

By Ted Keith
Michael Jordan drilled the championship-winning shot for North Carolina in 1982, the first year of CBS’s continuous relationship with the NCAA Tournament.getty images

When watching sports at home in western Massachusetts, Neal Pilson will occasionally find himself reaching for the phone until his wife of almost 60 years, Frieda, stops him. “You have no one to call,” she says.

For Pilson, who ran CBS Sports in various capacities from 1981-94, the habits of a former network sports president are hard to break. If there is no longer an executive producer for him to ring with instructions, then at the very least Pilson can revel in his lifelong ability to see plays develop on the screen and know what happened before being told. “I have the skill of watching the whole field,” he said.

When Pilson arrived at CBS Sports in July 1976, he could look at the field of sports television and see that his network was in a distant third place and needed to change that. A series of deals helped beef up the portfolio, and in 1981, as the vice president for business affairs at CBS Sports, Pilson was put in charge of the negotiations for rights to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. After extensive sessions with the NCAA at the O’Hare Hilton hotel in Chicago required an extra day to resolve — which necessitated a late run to the mall when then-CBS Sports president Van Gordon Sauter announced he was running out of underpants — Pilson and CBS secured the rights with a record-setting three-year, $48 million deal, a huge jump over the two-year, $18.8 million deal with NBC.

“Getting the tournament for CBS, and the fact they still have it, I take a lot of pride in that,” said Pilson.

Forty years later, CBS has become synonymous with March Madness.

 While this weekend’s Final Four and national championship game will air on TBS for the third time as part of the arrangement put in place by the joint deal with Turner Sports, CBS’s innovations in broadcasting the event are everywhere: prime-time matchups, staggered start times to allow viewers to watch as many finishes as possible, and even Selection Sunday itself, a revelatory idea that Pilson said NCAA executives were “very excited about. That had not occurred to them, no one had ever offered or suggested that to them.”

There were downsides, of course. The financial risk for CBS in putting games on during prime time in place of lucrative scripted shows was especially daunting. And adding the tournament meant dropping the NBA off  the network’s schedule during much of March, which eventually helped cost CBS the rights to that league.

But it didn’t take long for Pilson and CBS to know that the deal was a success. On March 29, 1982, more than 30 million viewers — then the second-highest on record for a national championship game, and still the ninth-most — watched North Carolina face Georgetown in a heavyweight final at the Louisiana Superdome.

About 20 minutes after Michael Jordan’s jumper swished through the net to clinch the Tar Heels’ 63-62 win that gave UNC coach Dean Smith his first national championship, there was another innovation: CBS aired a montage of tournament highlights set to music. It was five years before David Barrett’s “One Shining Moment” debuted and became the unofficial tournament anthem. Instead it was Sister Sledge singing “There’s No Stopping Us.”

In time, the same would prove true for the alignment of CBS Sports and the NCAA Tournament. Those who could see the whole field might have guessed as much. 

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