March Madness TV Distribution to March On, CBS’ McManus Says

The ongoing erosion of the pay-TV bundle has eaten into cable sports ratings, and among the networks that endured some of the steepest swings on the Nielsen dials in 2022 were Warner Bros. Discovery’s TBS and TNT. But while the distribution shakeout remains a source of anxiety for all parties concerned, March Madness partners CBS and WBD have no plans to alter their shared coverage of the men’s college basketball tournament.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call Tuesday morning, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said that while there has been some talk about adjusting the spring hoops schedule to defray the losses on the cable side, “those discussions have never come to fruition.” McManus added that he believes the partnership works to everyone’s advantage; as such, “I don’t see that changing in the future.”

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Since 2016, when the Turner Sports collective (TNT/TBS/truTV) first carried the Final Four and subsequent title tilt, the tourney’s championship series has alternated between the cable nets and legacy broadcaster CBS. The shared custody arrangement was struck way back in April 2010, when CBS and Turner joined forces in a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal to divide the spring hoops event between them.

At the time, CBS acknowledged that it wouldn’t have been able to continue carrying March Madness without dealing-in an outside partner. (CBS had served the exclusive broadcaster of the tournament since 1982, when it outbid NBC for the rights in a three-year, $48 million deal.) The new ride-sharing scheme was hatched by McManus and David Levy, who then served as president of sales, distribution and sports, Turner Broadcasting System.

McManus on Tuesday acknowledged that his vision for March Madness hasn’t changed since he and Levy first began swatting the idea around some 14 years ago. “David Levy was clear on this from day one: ‘I need to have championship games. If we’re going to be partners, we need to be equal partners,’” McManus said.

Of course, the world was quite a different place when McManus and Levy started thinking about the long-term viability of a CBS-Turner partnership. At the time, TBS and TNT were the most-distributed cable networks on the menu, as each channel reached more than 100 million homes nationwide. Since then, overall penetration of the bundle has slipped to just 50% of all TV households; and at last count, TBS and TNT were available in some 78 million bundled homes. CBS, meanwhile, reaches on the order of 96 million TV homes.

Cable’s ratings have dropped in accordance with the exodus from the bundle. In 2022, fifth-ranked TNT averaged 965,000 viewers per night in prime, a decline of 12% from the previous year. TBS finished two slots down with 875,000 nightly viewers, a drop of 15% versus 2021. Last year marked the first time in two decades that both networks failed to deliver at least 1 million linear-TV viewers per night.

As McManus said on the call, the tourney isn’t wholly defined by its TV numbers. Digital outlets such as March Madness Live have neutralized much of the losses on the TV front, so much so that McManus reiterated that the tourney remains “one of the widest-distributed events in sports.” As such, the partners are platform-agnostic; whether it’s served up via a 5.5-inch smartphone screen or an 86-inch wall-hugger, every impression is monetized.

Last year’s tournament generated more than $1 billion in overall ad sales revenue. Unit pricing for the championship telecast was over $2 million per 30-second slice of airtime.

Through the first five years of the deal, CBS continued its stewardship of the semis and the championship game, before handing the reins to the Turner gang in 2016. The impact of moving the three outings from broadcast to cable was impossible to ignore; per Nielsen, the April 4 Villanova-North Carolina nail-biter averaged 17.8 million across the Turner nets, plummeting 37% from the 28.3 million fans who tuned in for the previous year’s Duke-Wisconsin title game on CBS.

While at least some of that initial drop-off can be chalked up to Duke’s not showing up for the 2016 final, Turner’s second outing fared even worse. Villanova’s 79-62 blowout of Michigan in 2018 averaged just shy of 16 million viewers, marking an all-time low for the championship game, and a 28% decline versus the previous year’s deliveries.

In March 2016, the NCAA extended its agreement with CBS and Turner for an additional eight years, or through the 2032 season. The bonus years were valued at $8.8 billion, and according to NCAA financial documents, the media partners this year are on the hook for $873 million in rights fees.

Under the terms of the extension, TBS et al will carry five title games between 2024 and 2032.

While the pandemic in 2020 wiped out what was to have been the company’s third championship weekend, last year’s final marked a bit of an uptick, as Turner Sports’ coverage of the Kansas-UNC game averaged 17.1 million viewers—or 18.1 million, when streaming impressions were blended in with the vanilla TV ratings.

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