ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: The Billion Dollar Game (2015)

Directed by Nick Guthe

I recently took a day and a half worth of Paid Time Off. It was a Thursday afternoon and all day Friday. I decided to take these days off because the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament was tipping of its (now) Second Round of play. These two days have always been huge days in sports for me. In high school, college and now beyond, I have probably wasted as much time mulling over the filling out of my bracket as I have watching the games on TV. TV, what a wonderful invention, and how fortunate we are to have the chance to see all the games of the tournament live on national television. But of course, it wasn’t always like that. The tournament wasn’t always such a huge, lucrative event. It wasn’t always prime for the Cinderella team or the unexpected upset. That is until 16 seeded Princeton gave powerhouse #1 seed Georgetown all they could handle in the opening round of the 1989 tournament.
Princeton, spoiler alert, fell that day, but by a mere point. In a game as exciting as it was close, national audiences were transfixed by the “can’t miss” television, which caused CBS executives to decide to air ALL tournament games nationally. In addition, Princeton paved the way for mid-major conference teams to remain a part of the tournament. Around that time, teams from the Ivy League and other mid-major conferences were regularly getting blown out in tournament play by their larger counterparts, so much so that it was in the conversation to bar mid-major teams from even being in the tournament, reserving those spots instead for more powerhouse conference teams to have a chance to win the championship. Without the way led by Princeton, there would have been far less excitement over the past 25 years, with Cinderella teams and huge, unexpected upsets as rare as the dodo bird.
The Billion Dollar Game basically lays out this agenda in very business-like fashion. Literally. Nick Guthe’s films does a good job of focusing on the business side of the game, investigating the contracts of CBS/Turner to broadcast the games. Guthe uses this data to project the theory that the popularity of the tournament can be directly linked back to the Princeton/Georgetown game in 1989, and as such, so can the billions of dollars the tournament games are now worth to be broadcast. The film, however, ends up feeling more like a cold conference room presentation to a board making decision on whether to invest in the tournament or pass on the opportunity than it does a film made for entertainment. Unfortunately, the source rich topic of the NCCA tournament is turned into an infomercial, and one without a wacky host to garner interest.

**1/2 – Average

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