Blowout Sinks NCAA Ratings, But $900M in Ad Sales on Par With 2019

Anthony Crupi
·5 min read

In running away with the NCAA title game practically from the jump, the Baylor Bears routed the once-undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs by 16 points Monday night, and in so doing put the hurt on CBS’ ratings prospects.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Baylor’s 86-70 beatdown of the cold-shooting Zags averaged 16.9 million viewers and a 9.5 household rating, making it the least-watched men’s hoops final on the books. The previous low-water mark was set in 2018, when TBS/TNT/truTV combined for an average draw of 16 million viewers and a 9.2 rating for their simulcast of Villanova’s intrigue-free 79-62 shellacking of Michigan.

Streaming deliveries for the March Madness on Demand platform were not disclosed. CBS’ TV impressions were down 14% compared to the 19.6 million viewers who tuned in to the Texas Tech-Virginia championship two years ago.

Monday night’s TV turnout now stands as CBS’ lowest-rated March Madness capper in the 40 years since it boosted the rights to the tourney back in 1981. A week before that long-ago dance got underway on NBC, CBS paid a then-staggering sum of $48 million for its first three years of NCAA hoops coverage.

On the way to denying Gonzaga’s bid to become the first undefeated champs since Indiana sidestepped the L column during the 1975-76 season, Baylor played its signature brand of hybrid basketball. This seemingly incongruous brew of finesse (the Bears scored 30 points from behind the arc) and brawn (rebound advantage: 38 to 22) made for a 19-point lead at the midway point of the first half, after which the Zags were never in contention.

If the lack of suspense and the absence of basketball blue bloods Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina all but ensured a less-than-optimal draw for Monday’s game, an unprecedented geographic no-show likely made matters worse. For the first time in the history of the tournament, not a single school from the Eastern time zone advanced to the Final Four, which may have lowered the stakes in 48% of all U.S. TV homes. (Per Nielsen, there are 58.1 million TV households back East, a tally which outnumbers the combined tube-owning population of Baylor’s Central time zone and Gonzaga’s Pacific territory by 3.49 million.)

As much as the title game failed to draw a massive crowd, the overall deliveries for the 66-game tournament were relatively robust. CBS and the Turner Sports nets averaged 3.82 million March Madness TV viewers, which marked a 13% decline compared to the 4.4 million fans who tuned in for the 2019 showcase. That retention rate is fairly reassuring, especially when juxtaposed with many of the other top sporting events during the pandemic. Since the Big Restart in late July, some of the most significant year-to-year drops include: the Daytona 500 (-34%), the College Football Playoff National Championship (-27%), November’s Masters tournament (-58%), the NBA Finals (-49%) and the World Series (-30%).

It’s also worth noting that TV usage has remained at uncommonly low levels throughout the Plague Year, as overall viewership of the Big Four broadcast networks was down as much as 28% early last summer. Network TV is currently reaching 16% fewer viewers than was the case a year ago.

If March Madness wasn’t disrupted by the temporal weirdness that plagued the NBA title series and the azalea-free Masters, that’s not to say that the tournament was entirely unaffected by the ongoing medical crisis. At times, the rejiggered schedule worked in the networks’ favor—having shifted to the weekend from their customary Thursday-Friday perch, ratings for the uncluttered Sweet 16 round were up 13%—but a gain in one cycle necessarily led to a loss in the subsequent pairings. Evicted from their cozy weekend aerie, the Elite 8 saw deliveries plummet 45% (6.16 million viewers versus 11.2 million) compared to 2019, which featured Duke and Zion Williamson’s one-point loss to Michigan State and Auburn’s six-point defeat of Kentucky.

Deliveries for CBS’ broadcast of the Final Four were down 20% from two years ago, as the impact of Gonzaga’s buzzer-beating win over UCLA (14.9 million viewers, 7.6 rating) was downgraded by Baylor’s rough treatment of Houston in the early game. The Bears’ 19-point victory averaged a record-low 8.18 million viewers and a 4.4 rating. By comparison, the Bulldogs’ overtime win ranks as the 22nd most-watched program of 2021, tucking in between the Week 17 Sunday Night Football matchup on NBC (16.5 million viewers) and the Jan. 10 installment of CBS’ 60 Minutes (14.8 million). The Baylor-Gonzaga game now ranks 20th on the list of top broadcasts.

Top sponsors of the 2021 tournament include deep-pocketed NCAA “Corporate Champions” Capital One, Coca-Cola and AT&T (the latter of which owns the Turner Sports nets). On the lower tier, official “Corporate Partners” Geico, Buick, Nissan and Wendy’s were well-represented throughout the three-week event, which culminated in a title tilt for which CBS charged advertisers around $2 million for each 30-second slice of airtime.

All told, the networks are on track to have generated north of $900 million in March Madness ad sales, a figure that is consistent with 2019 levels and reflects an estimate of gross revenues before the application of the requisite make-goods/audience-deficiency units. According to Standard Media Index estimates, which factor in the ADU freebies, CBS and the Turner nets raked in $655.1 million in ad sales during the 2019 tournament.

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