March Madness Is Booming for TV Networks In Need of a Jolt

Can college basketball turn TV’s fortunes around?

At a moment where linear TV is in something of a lull, with last year’s strikes still being felt and a continued weak advertising market, the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament might be just the thing the market needs.

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As usual, this year’s games will be televised on CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV, and will stream online via Max (for the TNT, TBS and TruTV games), Paramount+ (for the CBS games) and the March Madness Live app.

John Bogusz, the head of ad sales for CBS Sports (he will retire later this year), says that this year’s tournament is trending up high single digits in terms of dollars and pricing, as sports outpace entertainment in the marketplace. The entire tournament is “virtually sold out,” he says, with the Final Four and championship in particularly high demand (they are holding back a few sports in case there is last-minute interest).

“I would say it’s also reflective of the ratings,” says Jon Diament, the head of ad sales for TNT Sports. “The ratings for high profile sports continue to be very consistent, the demos are very strong. And there’s some really cool sponsorships and extensions associated with all those great properties in social and in betting and all the other things that sports brings to the table that marketers embrace. So I think sports has an advantage right now in the market based on audience flow and advertiser interest.”

While ratings for March Madness were down last year (as was the case for most of linear TV), last year’s championship game between UConn and San Diego State averaged nearly 15 million viewers, making it the most-watched basketball game last year, besting even the NBA Finals.

March Madness has another advantage: While the regular seasons of the major sports leagues drag on for months, culminating in high-profile playoffs, during March Madness every game is a knockout match, and it takes place over weeks, guaranteeing intense interest from viewers.

It also makes for a tough schedule for the studio team.

“It’s always fun. Well, other than Thursday and Friday [the first week] it’s always fun,” says Charles Barkley, the Inside the NBA analyst who will once again be a part of this year’s March Madness studio team. “When you are on television for 12 hours straight, it takes every ounce of energy, it’s a long day.”

“Once you get past the first two days it is smooth sailing. But when you’re trying to sit there and they’ve got four games on at a time, and your head is on a swivel cause you got to talk about this game, you’re gonna talk about his game, we’re gonna talk about this game,” Barkley added. “And thank God we’ve got a great research crew. But the first two days of March Madness, man, they are a lot of work. I mean … Anytime you go into place and it is daylight you don’t come out until it’s dark, you know it’s been a long day.”

But that barrage of games makes for great TV, with both streaming (where fans watch multiple games at once) and even linear TV, benefitting. And as Diament notes, the fact that so many people (including former President Obama) make filling out a bracket an annual tradition, increases engagement and interest further,

“I think the viewership has been fragmented in that there’s different ways to watch the tournament. So while you might look at linear ratings being somewhat flat, there’s tons of people watching streaming devices and connected TVs and March Madness Live and now on Max and Paramount+,” Diament says. “There’s a lot of noise around the tournament, from an ancillary perspective.”

The home and insurance categories are particularly strong from an advertiser perspective, the executives added.

“You have 20 corporate partners all leaning in creating custom content, activating on property, activating online through digital and social, you know, these are robust programs,” Diament says.

With the NFL in the offseason, MLB in preseason, and something of a lull in the NBA and NHL schedules, March Madness might be just the thing to goose TV, at least until the NBA playoffs or this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“The Olympics are the greatest sporting event I’ve ever been a part of in my life and this is a close second. It’s amazing. Every year something happens that you’re like, ‘wow. I’m glad I was a part of watching that,'” Barkley says. “I said it: Even Republicans and Democrats can’t screw up March Madness. That’s how awesome this product is.”

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