BIRD VS. MAGIC : Their 1979 Matchup Took TV Ratings to Still Unequaled High
Of all the records held by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the one they set 10 years ago in Salt Lake City may last the longest.
The 1979 NCAA championship game between Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores and Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans drew the highest television rating in college basketball history.
NBC’s telecast received a 24.1 rating. In the last decade, only the 1985 Villanova-Georgetown final has come close with a 23.3.
“Nearly two of every five people watching television that night watched the 1979 game,” said Len DeLuca, director of programming at CBS Sports. “It was a giant leap forward for basketball. It catapulted the game into the ‘80s.”
College basketball has been soaring ever since. The television rights fee for the NCAA tournament more than tripled to $48 million when CBS replaced NBC in 1982. The three-year contract doubled to $96 million in 1985 and jumped to $166 million last year.
The growth of cable television, particularly ESPN, played a major role in the college basketball boom. But the Bird-Magic game was the catalyst.
“The college game was already on the launching pad. Then Bird and Magic came along and pushed the button,” said NBC commentator Al McGuire, who called the game with Dick Enberg and Billy Packer.
The appeal of the two stars and the David vs. Goliath matchup between the Big Ten power and the little school from Terre Haute, Ind., made it more than just another college basketball game.
“It was ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ and the Olympics all in one,” McGuire said. Don Ohlmeyer, who produced the game for NBC, understood that Bird and Magic were big box office.
A production assistant had prepared an opening piece on Bob King, who had stepped down as Indiana State coach shortly before the season began because of health problems. When Ohlmeyer found out, he was furious. “He said, ‘Damn it, this game is a story of Bird and Johnson!”’ Packer recalled. “Ohlymeyer didn’t know anything about basketball, but he had a great feeling for the American public. He knew what they wanted.”
Michigan State won the game, but the biggest winner was basketball.
“Bird and Magic brought passing back into the game,” McGuire said. “Back then, all the publicity went to the slam-dunkers and the gunners. But these two guys showed you could be unselfish and still be a star.”