No Duke? No Problem: CBS, Turner Sports Sell Out March Madness

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A year after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out what is arguably the greatest three weeks on the sports calendar, advertisers have scrambled back to assume their positions with March Madness.

Speaking to reporters on a Zoom call late Wednesday afternoon, the senior-most ad sales execs at CBS Sports and Turner Sports said that anyone who’s been dragging their feet on an in-game buy in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is more or less out of luck.

“We are pleased to say that we are virtually sold out throughout the tournament,” said John Bogusz, executive VP, Sports Sales and Marketing, CBS Network Sales, who added that the last available 30-second spot in CBS’ 5 p.m. ET Final Four broadcast has been picked clean, while “only a couple” of units are still available in the primetime game.

The April 5 championship game also is down to its last few units.

As was the case last spring, when the March Madness TV spots were sold out by Feb. 19, much of the CBS/Turner Sports sales have been brokered with automotive, insurance, financial services, quick-service/casual-dining restaurants and wireless providers. Of course, the networks’ pre-tourney efforts in 2020 all went for naught, as the NCAA canceled the tournament just two days before Selection Sunday.

“Most [would-be] advertisers from last year wound up keeping their money, basically,” Bogusz said, before noting that as many was 90% of those brands who’d had their spring marketing schemes disrupted have jumped back into the mix for this year’s tourney. “We do have some attrition, but by and large most of them have come back, which is why we’re as tight as we are right now,” Bogusz said.

A disproportionately outsized investment from the tournament’s so-called “Corporate Champions” (AT&T, Capital One, Coca-Cola) and “Corporate Partners” (a collection of 15 brands that includes Buick, Buffalo Wild Wings, Unilever and Lowe’s) account for more than half of all March Madness ad spend. Joining the official backers are Aflac, Invesco and Great Clips, which had originally signed on as Corporate Partners a year ago, but never had a chance to launch their initial activations.

Bogusz and his cable counterpart, Turner Sports executive VP and chief revenue officer Jon Diament, are hoping that pent-up demand for the college hoops showcase will offset the increasing likelihood that basketball royalty Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina will be shut out of this year’s event. “The ratings have been slightly down for college basketball this year, but we have set aside a little bit of inventory to take care of our advertisers if need be,” Bogusz said, while Diament emphasized that Cinderella teams over the years have shown a tendency to grab the nation’s fancy.

Even when the lower-rated early rounds are factored in, March Madness out-delivers everything in its path. For example, while the 2019 tournament averaged 10.5 million viewers per window across CBS and Turner’s TBS, TNT and truTV, the 73 primetime comedies and dramas on the Big Four broadcast networks eked out an audience less than half that size (4.49 million viewers).

As far as the championship game itself, the Nielsen deliveries largely depend on whether or not the Blue Devils are suited up. In the last 20 years, CBS’s three most-watched college basketball broadcasts have featured Duke—a team which, like the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, enjoys a massive national following of die-hard fans and equally passionate hate-watchers. The network notched a 21st-century high 28.3 million viewers and a 16.0 rating in 2015, when Mike Krzyzewski’s charges edged a valiant Wisconsin squad 68-63.

The novelty value of an undefeated Gonzaga team could help boost deliveries, as the last time an unblemished squad made it all the way to the championship game was way back in 1976. Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers thumped Michigan for the title by a score of 86-68, in front of a crowd of 26.7 million NBC viewers.

If CBS and the Turner nets can turn the ongoing sports-ratings narrative on its ear, the media partners are about to make a killing in Indiana. In 2019, the late-afternoon Final Four broadcast fetched as much as $825,000 per 30-second spot, while the primetime window commanded around $950,000 per unit. Pricing for the Virginia-Texas Tech title tilt averaged out to between $1.9 million and $2 million a pop on the high end of the scale. (Arriving at an average unit cost for the March Madness in-game spots is a fool’s errand, given that rates are pegged to each marketer’s overall investment. In other words, a brand that buys 90 spots across the tourney will pay a lower rate than a less-committed advertiser that ponies up for 25 units.)

All told, the 2019 tournament generated $655.1 million in ad revenue, according to Standard Media Index estimates. If all goes according to plan, CBS and Turner Sports will leave that figure in the dirt by the time the nets come down in Lucas Oil Stadium on the night of April 5.

“We’ve never been in better financial shape—this is the best year we’ve ever had,” said Diament, who has been selling March Madness spots since Turner Sports began sharing the road with CBS 10 years ago. Diament added that around 80% of the linear TV advertisers also have a presence on the March Madness Live streaming platform.

More than 100 advertisers have bought time in the tourney, which starts March 18 with the First Four. Of those, 40 are newcomers to March Madness.

AT&T continues to run the point as the presenting sponsor of the halftime show, while Capital has returned as the backer of the studio/bridge show and the championship game’s pregame broadcast.

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