The brass and blare of March Madness has returned after a two-year layoff, and the rekindled enthusiasm of the students and alumni who have crammed the arenas over the course of the first 52 games seems to have carried over to the fans watching from home.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the opening rounds of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament have delivered a TV audience that measures up with the analogous stretch in 2019. Through the second round of action, CBS and the Turner Sports networks (TBS, TNT, truTV) have averaged 2.99 million viewers, which is almost precisely where things stood three years ago. Including the First Four telecasts, March Madness deliveries are drawing about 900 more viewers per game, good for a statistically negligible increase of 0.03%.
The reversion to pre-pandemic ratings is particularly encouraging in light of the secular declines in overall TV usage. Thus far in March, nearly 26% fewer households have watched TV than was the case in 2019, a trend that has pulled tens of millions of would-be viewers away from the tube.
Ratings have been consistent since the start of the tournament, with interest growing as the road to New Orleans narrows to a two-lane freeway. Second-round coverage averaged 5.12 million viewers over the weekend, flat versus 2019 and up 39% compared to last year’s hermetically sealed tourney, which took place in a series of bubbles throughout Indiana. At 25% max capacity, the 2021 event was a mere approximation of the March Madness experience, and the ratings suffered accordingly.
When broken down by the individual TV windows, CBS and Turner sports are averaging 9.12 million viewers, good for a five-year high.
Through its first 15 broadcasts, CBS is averaging 5.89 million viewers, which duplicates its comparable run in 2019. The network’s showcase of seven second-round games averaged 8.3 million TV viewers, which gives it a very slight advantage of 15,400 bonus viewers per game over what it delivered three years ago.
Unsurprisingly, CBS’ most-watched broadcast thus far was Sunday’s Michigan State-Duke game, which averaged 11.2 million viewers in the 5 p.m. EDT window. Duke’s 85-76 victory now stands as the second most-watched game in an opening weekend since 2014, trailing only the 2019 UCF-Duke nail-biter (12.9 million). The Blue Devils’ win over the Spartans also served up a bigger TV audience than any NBA broadcast has managed since the Bucks beat the Suns in the sixth and deciding game of the 2021 NBA Finals (12.5 million).
Other top draws for CBS include Michigan’s 76-68 win over Tennessee, which drew 9.83 million viewers on Saturday afternoon, Creighton-Kansas earlier the same day (8.71 million) and Sunday’s Ohio State-Villanova game (8.62 million). On the cable side, TBS put up Turner Sports’ biggest number with a primetime Memphis-Gonzaga squeaker (4.37 million viewers).
The above figures do not include streaming estimates, as CBS and Turner Sports are keeping their March Madness Live data under wraps. Assuming a 5% boost, which is a bit more robust than what most live sports broadcasts experience, the average-minute streaming lift is likely in the neighborhood of 120,000 impressions per game.
While the raw TV numbers support the notion that college basketball has bounced back from the deprivations of the plague years, it’s worth noting that the comparisons to 2019 are of the apples-to-Kellogg’s Apple Jacks® variety. Because Nielsen only started blending out-of-home impressions with its vanilla TV data in September 2020, the crowds of viewers that were watching in bars, restaurants and gyms three years ago aren’t reflected in the official ratings data. As the overall deliveries are flat when compared to 2019, we can approximate the scale of the out-of-home inflation by examining the household ratings, which in this case are down 7%.
Unfortunately, even the “official” out-of-home data should probably be taken with a pillar of salt, given Nielsen’s propensity to under-count those impressions. While Nielsen continues to go back and adjust its light OOH estimates, the revisions are issued with little fanfare, which makes keeping track of the actual deliveries for any given broadcast a real skull-clutcher. (Case in point: Nielsen initially reported that the Thanksgiving Day Raiders-Cowboys game on CBS had averaged 37.8 million viewers, an already stellar number that jumped to 40.8 million after the company revised its OOH stats. The adjustment implies a 7% under-count.)
If trying to maintain a canonical headcount remains maddeningly imprecise, the frustration is largely academic—at least in the case of this year’s tournament. Thus far, CBS and Turner Sports are handily meeting their ratings guarantees, which means they’re not on the hook for make-good units. If the networks can get through the tournament without having to square away a whole bunch of audience deficiencies, they’ll have a better shot at breaking even on the Madness.
According to the NCAA’s most recent financial statement, the media partners this year coughed up $870 million for the rights to carry the tourney, a fee that is scheduled to balloon to $1.02 billion in 2026. Eliminate make-goods, and the overall ad sales and sponsorship haul approaches the $1 billion mark.
Given the state of the Sweet 16 field, the ratings should continue on their upward trajectory. Along with basketball bluebloods Duke, North Carolina and Kansas, the remaining slate includes an intriguing Michigan-Villanova matchup, three No. 1 seeds and the Cinderella story that is Saint Peter’s. The Jersey Jesuits’ upset of Kentucky in the first round averaged 5.45 million viewers, making it the eighth-biggest draw of the tournament to date, while their defeat of Murray State scared up another 6.69 million fans, good for sixth on the ratings chart.
As much as a triumphant 15 seed can make for a wild opening weekend, there’s not enough data on hand to predict how CBS might fare Friday night when Saint Peter’s continues its quixotic quest against Purdue. Prior to the Peacocks, only two 15 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 since the bracket was expanded to accommodate 64 teams back in 1985. Per Nielsen, 6.74 million viewers tuned in to TBS when Florida Gulf Coast was eliminated by Florida in 2013, and just one year ago, Oral Roberts’ 72-70 loss to Arkansas drew 5.94 million viewers on the same network.
Should Saint Peter’s get past the heavily favored Boilermakers (-12.5), they’d be the lowest-seeded team to crack the Elite Eight—whereupon they’d face the winner of Friday’s North Carolina-UCLA game.