March Madness Ratings Slide 12% as Schedule Shift and Duke No-Show Take Toll

Anthony Crupi
·5 min read

An unconventional broadcast schedule and the absence of college basketball royalty have begun to have a bit of an impact on the March Madness TV ratings, but all things considered, the college hoops tourney is holding up much better than expected.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same day data, overall deliveries for the first two rounds of the Division I men’s basketball tournament are down 12% compared to the analogous period in 2019, a decline that applies both to head-to-head ratings for the individual broadcasts, as well as the cumulative might of the far more relevant “game windows.” (Without getting too far into the weeds of the sports-TV marketplace, the practice of rolling up various matchups into distinct units allows CBS and the Turner Sports ad sales teams to make ratings guarantees across a range of time slots, thereby discouraging sponsors from simply cherry-picking the higher-impact primetime inventory.)

Through the second round of this year’s tournament, CBS and the three WarnerMedia cable nets (TNT, TBS, truTV) are averaging 8.01 million viewers across the sales windows, which marks a loss of some 1.05 million viewers compared to the 9.06 million viewers who tuned in during the comparable period in 2019. These figures include the deliveries for the First Four rounds.

The ratios are similar when viewed through the more prosaic lens of head-to-head comps. Including the play-in quartet, the NCAA’s media partners are averaging 2.67 million viewers per game, down 11% from 2.99 million; eliminate the first salvo of qualifiers and the decline is 13% (2.73 million viewers per game vs. 3.13 million).

The above figures do not include streaming figures, as CBS and Turner Sports are currently keeping their March Madness on Demand data under wraps.

While the overall deliveries have begun to diminish since the weekend closed out—through Sunday, total average TV viewership of March Madness was down just 3% compared to 2019—the drop was anticipated. The temporal dislocation involved with concluding the second round of play on a Monday rather than the traditional Lazy Sunday Showcase has made for an apples-to-road-apples juxtaposition. Even if the coronavirus pandemic effectively has eliminated the need for a Boss Button among white-collar types, you’re still expected to get some work done on a Monday afternoon, regardless of what’s going on with No. 1 Gonzaga.

Also, and this should go without saying, the usage of TV during bankers’ hours on a spring Monday pales in comparison to Sunday afternoon consumption. By shifting the final eight games of the second round to the first day of the workweek, CBS and its cable comrades effectively were staring down the barrel of a 20% decline in TV usage, even before the first game tipped off at 12:10 p.m. ET. (That said, outside of football season, Monday primetime PUT levels—industry argot for “people using television”—are all but identical to Sunday night usage stats.)

The disorienting peculiarities of the Monday round aside, the broadcasters of this year’s tourney also have had to contend with the quietude of a fan-free Hoosier Bubble, a phantom VCU-Oregon game (because of COVID-19 protocols, the 19-7 Rams were scratched before Saturday night’s scheduled showdown with the Ducks) and no-shows by ratings magnets like Duke and Kentucky.

Thus far, the biggest draw of the tourney came courtesy of Syracuse’s 75-72 win over West Virginia on Sunday night. In accordance with classical precedent, Jim Boeheim’s charges did everything in their power to test the cardiovascular integrity of the Orange faithful, and the resulting drama helped boost CBS’ deliveries. Per Nielsen, the broadcast averaged 7.86 million viewers, of whom 2.62 million were members of the adults 18-49 demo.

While the ’Cuse TV numbers were undoubtedly buttressed by the school’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of sports-media titans, the overall deliveries were still somewhat anemic when compared to the turnout for the same time slot during the 2019 tournament. Zion Williamson and Duke two years ago fended off a last-ditch fusillade of shots by UCF to advance to the Sweet 16 by a one-point margin, and in so doing, the top-seeded Blue Devils scared up 12.9 million viewers, including nearly 5 million fans in the under-50 set.

As Duke alum and CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus is well aware, he’s not the only one who’s likely to feel the sting of Mike Krzyzewski’s absence. Ratings for the championship largely depend on whether Duke suits up; in the last 20 years, CBS’s three most-watched college basketball broadcasts have featured the polarizing ACC squad. The network notched a 21st century-high 28.3 million viewers and a 16.0 rating in 2015, when the Blue Devils downed Wisconsin, 68-63.

Long story shortish, the first week of March Madness ratings are quite encouraging—especially in light of how sports TV ratings have faltered during the first year of the pandemic. If CBS and the Turner nets can keep grinding it out in Indiana, all signs point to a windfall that’d shatter the lenses of Scrooge McDuck’s pince-nez. According to Standard Media Index estimates, the 2019 tourney generated $655.1 million in ad revenue, with the average unit cost of the title game coming in between $1.9 million and $2 million a pop on the high end of the scale.

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