Michigan State-UCLA the most-watched First Four game ever

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Some metrics didn't support a Michigan State-UCLA matchup in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. But the television numbers, just in Friday afternoon, back up the selection committee's decision.

UCLA's 86-80 win over Michigan State, which began after 10 p.m. Eastern time and finished well into Friday morning, was the most-watched First Four game ever.

UCLA's  Jaime Jaquez Jr. makes a move past Michigan State's Aaron Henry during the second half of Thursday night's NCAA Tournament game.

The First Four was established in 2011.

According to Turner Sports, 7.6 million viewers watched the four games Thursday across TBS, truTV and streaming platforms, which was a record. That was up 36% from 2019, the last year the NCAA Tournament was held, after last year's was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Michigan State-UCLA game, a matchup of two blueblood programs — Michigan State more recently, UCLA more historically — drew 3.3 million viewers at its peak, which was from 11 p.m. to 11:15 p.m.

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When the matchup was announced Sunday, it drew some surprised reactions from fans and analysts, given both teams, and particularly Michigan State — which had recently beaten the Nos. 2-, 4- and 5-ranked teams in the country — deserved a better fate than having to play a First Four game. The First Four, created when the NCAA expanded the field to 68 teams from 65 in 2011, has two matchups of 16 seeds (automatic qualifiers) and two matchups of 11 seeds (the lowest-rated at-large teams).

Mitch Barnhart, chair of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and athletic director at Kentucky, said the metrics supported the Michigan State-UCLA pairing after the bracket reveal Sunday, though he acknowledged during a CBS interview it was TV gold.

"We thought it'd be a heck of a way to start the tournament off," he said.

UCLA was joined by Texas Southern, Drake and Norfolk State in winning First Four games, and advanced to the 64-team bracket.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984