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Yes, the First Four Matters. Here’s Why

  • March Madness gets underway with the First Four in Dayton on Tuesday.
  • The preliminary action has previously created several financial success stories.
Feb 18, 2023; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Grambling State University Tigers guard Tra'Michael Moton (5) celebrates with guard Shawndarius Cowart (10) after making a basket against the Southern University Jaguars during overtime at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
Christopher Creveling-USA TODAY Sports

The preliminary round of the men’s NCAA tournament is nothing to sleep on.

March Madness officially tips off Tuesday night with the First Four in Dayton—and crucial $2 million payment units are on the line for advancing to latter stages of the tournament.

Automatic qualifiers Wagner and Howard will compete for the West Region’s 16-seed, while fellow conference champions Grambling State and Montana State will battle for the 16 in the Midwest. At-large matchups featuring Colorado State–Virginia (Midwest) and Colorado–Boise State (South) will round out the preliminary action in Ohio over the next two days.

Since the bracket expanded to 68 teams in 2011, a First Four team has made it to the second round every year except once (’19). First Four winners have gone on to 21 main NCAA tournament games over the past 13 years and twice made it to the Final Four (VCU in ’11, UCLA in ’21). Last year, Fairleigh Dickinson became the first automatic qualifier from the First Four to win a tournament game, with the Knights’ upset of top-seeded Purdue leading to all kinds of off-court success, like a new media-rights deal with YES Network.

Staying Tru

If you want to watch the First Four, you’ll need to make sure your TV package includes TruTV—the oft-forgotten cable stepchild of Warner Bros. Discovery, the company that, alongside CBS, is paying some $900 million annually to broadcast March Madness. For years, sports fans have joked about TruTV’s irrelevance outside of March, but this month marks a major pivot for the channel, which is transitioning to airing sports content full-time on weeknights moving forward. 

Last year, First Four games averaged 1.35 million viewers on TruTV, down from the 1.75 million action in 2022, which benefited from the inclusion of Notre Dame and set a record for the two-night format. (In ’21, all four games aired on one night, spread across TruTV and TBS.) But after this year’s games on TruTV—which will include eight first-round matchups—WBD is hoping fans will stick around for the channel’s new nightly TNT Sports Update program, as well as a betting-focused show, plus simulcasts and alternate casts of NBA, NHL, MLB games.

Where the Madness Begins

The 13,000-seat University of Dayton Arena has hosted every First Four game outside of the pandemic-impacted 2021 tournament dating back to ’11. And even before that, it was the site of the one-game opening round featuring the two lowest-ranked automatic qualifiers, which began in ’01.

UD Arena routinely gets near-capacity crowds: About 25,000 fans typically attend First Four games over two nights. As of Monday afternoon, the cheapest official resale tickets cost $89 before taxes and fees. And for locals looking to capitalize on the new business in town, the March Madness bump will continue later this week, if not longer: Dayton’s men’s basketball notched its first NCAA tournament bid since 2017, earning a seven-seed; now the Flyers are set to face 10-seed Nevada on Thursday in Memphis.

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