If you’re a marketing exec at, say, an auto manufacturer, fast-food chain or insurance provider and are looking to snap up a last-minute commercial unit in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, you’re pretty much out of luck. According to the CBS and Turner Sports sales execs who oversee the March Madness marketplace, the spring hoops showcase is essentially sold out, a feat that speaks to the staying power of what is arguably the greatest three weeks on the sports calendar.
Speaking to reporters during a teleconference Tuesday evening, CBS’ John Bogusz and Turner Sports’ Jon Diament said the in-game inventory has been just about picked clean, after advertisers rushed to buy spots in what is shaping up to be the first “normal” NCAA tourney since 2019. The return of fans to the stands and the rekindling of the traditional on-campus revelry that’s been a hallmark of March Madness should go a long way toward making the event a smart buy, even if a cable-exclusive Final Four is likely to depress the TV ratings for the last three games.
In accordance with historical precedent, more than half of this year’s March Madness ad slots were claimed by the members of the NCAA’s Corporate Champions and Partners Program. Representing the highest level of brand commitment, the Corporate Champions (Capital One, Coca-Cola and halftime sponsor AT&T) spend upwards of $35 million per year for the privilege of cozying up to the tourney. Partner-level sponsors include Aflac, Buick, Nissan, Pizza Hut and Unilever; collectively, the officially sanctioned brands will invest around $200 million on their annual partnerships—and that’s before they’ve spent a dime on in-game advertising.
As it turns out, many of the blue chippers spend even more on TV and digital spots. According to Kantar estimates for 2019, the three Corporate Champions dropped a combined $135 million on in-game buys. Meanwhile, General Motors’ ad investment tallied up to a cool $75 million, which made Buick’s parent company that year’s biggest March Madness spender.
All told, the NCAA partners account for around 60% of the CBS/Turner Sports ad sales haul. That baked-in demand makes for fairly frictionless sales proposition, said Bogusz, who serves as executive VP, sports sales and marketing for CBS. “The program really lays the foundation for our being successful in the tournament,” Bogusz said. “After they’ve made their investments, the rest of the market just fills in from there.”
Bogusz said the media partners have commanded “close to double-digit [rate] increases compared to last year,” before specifying that pricing ranges between “a couple of hundred thousand dollars” per 30-second unit in the earlier rounds to “well over $2 million dollars for the championship game.”
In other words, the CBS and the Turner cable nets are about to make a killing in New Orleans. While arriving at an average unit cost for the March Madness in-game spots is a doomed and somewhat foolhardy undertaking, given that rates are pegged to each marketer’s overall investment—a brand that ponies up for 75 spots across the tourney will pay a lower rate than an advertiser that commits to 15 units—the total dollar volume isn’t too hard to figure. Kantar’s estimates eyeballed the 2019 tournament spend at $910 million, although that figure doesn’t take into account the make-good units. Per Standard Media Index, which sifts out the ADUs (audience-deficiency units) before tallying the overall tourney spend, March Madness in 2019 netted $655.1 million in ad revenue.
If all goes well, the media partners may not have to cough up all that many make-good units this time around. Diament, who serves as Bogusz’s counterpart on the cable side of the ledger, said he’s particularly enthused by the number of national powerhouses set to land in the brackets come next week. Along with perennial big draws like Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, Diament notes that there’s also a strong contingent taking shape out West in Gonzaga, Arizona and UCLA. That geographical balance should pay off in higher ratings in the later TV windows, although this year’s X factor may have more to do with the energy and excitement coming from the repopulated student sections. A long run by Duke before five-time champ Mike Krzyzewski hangs it up for good should also go a long way toward inflating the TV numbers.
The pent-up demand for the full-on March Madness experience is all but palpable. “When we didn’t have this tournament in 2020, people realized how just much it meant to them,” said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus earlier in the afternoon. “I think the country is ready for the tournament. … Last year was tough, we were in the bubble, but it’s going to feel good to get back to some degree of normalcy.”
Of course, regardless of how well the CBS-Turner Sports pairing does in the early going, this year’s tourney is all but destined to fall a bit flat once it reaches the end of the line. For the first time since 2018, TBS will carry the Final Four and Championship Game, and the cable channel’s footprint puts it at a disadvantage compared to its broadcast partner. Per Nielsen, TBS now reaches 78.8 million pay-TV homes, and while that makes it the most broadly distributed sports outlet on the cable dial, it’s still a good 17 million homes shy of CBS’ broadcast range.
While the reach gap will almost certainly impact the ratings for the semis and title tilt—four years ago, TBS’ coverage of the Villanova-Michigan closer averaged 16.5 million viewers across all linear TV and streaming platforms, down 28% from the previous year’s UNC-Gonzaga game on CBS—if Americans are served up something along the lines of a Duke-Kentucky final, it’ll all come out in the wash. The last time Coach K. and his charges won the title, back in 2015, CBS’ broadcast averaged 28.3 million viewers. Even with the inevitable cable discount, should Krzyzewski belt out his swan song on April 4, that’s going to do numbers no matter where it airs.
Again, the money’s already booked; a strong ratings performance simply means CBS and Turner Sports get to keep a lot more of the dough. “When you think about the amount of days, and it’s not like we’re on the air every day of the three weeks, that’s a lot of money that we gobble up in a short window,” Diament said. “We’re in great shape. The sports market is booming.”