Shaking up things on the scheduling front seems to have given March Madness ratings a shot in the arm, as the TV turnout for the weekend’s Sweet 16 games was up significantly compared to the regional semifinals in 2019.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the eight men’s college hoops games averaged 6.46 million viewers across CBS and TBS, which marked a 13% lift versus the 5.74 million viewers who tuned in for the analogous slate two years ago. Thanks in part to the unconventional timing of the round—the regional semis traditionally take place on Thursday/Friday—and a staggered scheme that saw each game air in an uncluttered broadcast window, the Sweet 16 ratings didn’t suffer from the absence of must-see programs, such as Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Situating each game in its own discrete window seems to have mitigated the usual spasms of channel surfing between CBS and TBS that have become a feature of the stacked Sweet 16 viewing experience. Besides the obvious benefit to the individual game ratings, the shift also has helped the NCAA’s network partners retain more viewers during the commercial breaks. (Because the tipoffs are usually spaced apart just 20 minutes for each day’s late and early pairing, much of the remote-control-escapism plays out when the Capital One/Geico/AT&T ads kick in again for the umpteenth time.)
All told, the Sweet 16 bump has helped bring this year’s tourney more closely in line with the 2019 event. Through Sunday’s quartet of games, CBS and the Turner Sports networks are averaging 3.18 million viewers, which is down just 5% versus the relevant time frame in 2019. Before the Sweet 16 got underway, March Madness ratings had been down 12% overall.
If the tournament appears primed to claim bragging rights as the first major sporting event of the Plague Era to shake off the year-long ratings curse, it’s likely that yet another reversal of fortune awaits the Elite Eight results. Tonight’s USC-Gonzaga and UCLA-Michigan games on TBS are particularly ill-suited for a massive ratings surge, as they’ll be compared to the Sunday night showdowns of two years ago. CBS’ broadcast of Michigan State’s 68-67 win over Duke averaged 16.2 million viewers and a 9.4 household rating on March 31, 2109, while lead-in Auburn-Kentucky scared up 10.5 million viewers in the early-afternoon time slot.
Last night’s Houston-Oregon State and Baylor-Arkansas doubleheader on CBS also faces a couple of tough comps in Texas Tech-Gonzaga (7.72 million viewers) and Purdue-Virginia (10.5 million). Both of those Saturday Elite Eight games were televised by TBS.
Through the final stage of the Sweet 16, the tourney’s biggest draw thus far was Sunday evening’s Michigan-Florida State game, which averaged 9.03 million viewers and a 5.1 rating on CBS. While that marked a 10% decline vs. the comparable Duke-Virginia Tech game in 2019, when Zion Williamson & Co. averaged 10.1 million viewers on a Friday night, Michigan’s 76-58 win still put up bigger numbers than any game of this fall’s delayed NBA Finals on ABC.
The only other Sweet 16 game to see a year-to-year drop was CBS’ early-afternoon presentation of Oregon State’s 65-58 triumph over Loyola Chicago, which was down 11% when compared to the network’s Gonzaga-Florida State broadcast, which tipped off two years ago on a Thursday early evening (7 p.m. ET).
However things shake out on the ratings front, the completion of the Indy Bubble tourney will merit a victory lap or two for the NCAA and the TV networks. As was the case with every other high-impact sporting event that’s been held since the coronavirus first got its hooks in more than a year ago, anything that brings us closer to “normal” is worth celebrating, regardless of how brightly the Nielsen dials get lit up.