The biggest TV draw of the 2022 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament was knocked out of contention Sunday, but fortunately for Turner Sports, the most-eyeballed team of the last quarter century is suiting up for the Final Four.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the end of the Saint Peter’s Cinderella story effectively took the tourney’s top TV performer out of the mix. Through the Peacocks’ 69-49 loss to North Carolina in the Elite Eight, the Jersey Jesuits averaged 8.98 million viewers per game, topping also-ran Duke (8.32 million) by a not-inconsiderable margin.
While the Tar Heels’ lopsided win was about as bereft of suspense as a Scooby-Doo cartoon—come on already: it’s always the guy who owns the abandoned water park—Sunday’s broadcast was the top draw of the first 64 games, as CBS averaged 13.6 million viewers and a 7.2 household rating. Two nights earlier, St. Peter’s edged Purdue 67-64 in front of 10.2 million viewers, giving the upstarts bragging rights to the fourth most-watched game of the tournament.
Duke featured in the second and third biggest draws thus far, a tally that includes the Blue Devils’ second round win over Michigan State (11.2 million) and Saturday’s Elite Eight victory over Arkansas on TBS (10.3 million). In reaching his 13th Final Four, outgoing Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has set up what amounts to a perfect storm, as his team will square off in the Big Dance for the very first time against its archrival, North Carolina.
The last time Coach K’s charges reached the Final Four was back in 2015, when Duke upended Gonzaga by a 66-52 margin to earn a shot at Michigan State in the semis. The Blue Devils demolished Tom Izzo’s Spartans 81-61 in front of an audience of 15.3 million TBS/TNT viewers.
Those deliveries are in keeping with a similarly one-sided Final Four broadcast in 2010, when Duke maimed West Virginia 78-57 for the benefit of 15.8 million viewers CBS viewers. Over the course of Duke’s three 21st century Final Four appearances on CBS, the broadcaster has averaged just shy of 17 million viewers.
But it’s in the title tilt where Duke really lights up the Nielsen dials. The Blue Devils can lay claim to TV’s four most-watched college basketball going back to 1999, when the heavily favored UConn Huskies handed Krzyzewski what stands as his last championship loss. The game averaged 26.3 million viewers, making it the second-biggest draw behind only Duke’s 68-63 win over Wisconsin in 2015 (28.3 million).
While the Turner nets are at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of their relative distribution—TBS and TNT both reach around 78.8 million households, which is nearly 17 million homes shy of broadcast partner CBS—the two networks still managed to scare up the biggest ratings for a Final Four in the last 20 years with the 2015 Wisconsin-Kentucky semi. The Badgers knocked off the undefeated Wildcats 71-64, and in so doing, helped draw 22.6 million viewers to basic cable.
Aside from the goosebumps promised by Krzyzewski’s final Duke-Carolina showdown, Turner Sports has a second must-see matchup lined up, care of Villanova-Kansas. Under Jay Wright, ‘Nova has been one of the most lethal programs on the court, winning two of the last five tournaments, while the perennially dangerous Jayhawks are headed to their sixth Final Four in 20 years. Kansas’ national TV following is formidable, while Villanova represents the nation’s fourth-largest media market in Philadelphia. A tight game (Kansas is currently listed as a 4.5-point favorite) should make for a sturdy lead-in for the main event, which tips off Saturday at 8:49 p.m. EDT.
Ratings for the 2022 installment of March Madness suggest college hoops has rebounded all the way back from the privations of last year’s socially distanced tourney. Through the Elite Eight, CBS and Turner Sports are averaging 3.78 million viewers per game, which marks a negligible 2% dip compared to the analogous period in 2019, when the networks averaged 3.85 million viewers. That’s particularly reassuring, given that overall TV usage is down 26% in March 2022 versus March 2019.
CBS’ slate of 21 broadcasts averaged 6.99 million linear TV viewers, up 2% from 6.84 million three years ago. Turner Sports’ first 43 telecasts averaged 2.21 million viewers, down 7% from 2.39 million. Again, this is a strong showing, in light of the ongoing TV trends. In the last three years, about 14.7 million subscribers have ditched their traditional cable/satellite/telco-TV bundle, bringing the total number of customers down to 68.2 million. Eight years ago, more than 100 million households subscribed to the bundle.
As is always the case when making year-over-year ratings comparisons, it’s worth noting that the 2019 Nielsen data does not include out-of-home impressions, which have inflated this year’s overall deliveries by as much as 7%. Meanwhile, streaming figures for 2022 remain unaccounted for.
Should Duke advance to the Championship Game, TBS/TNT can expect to top the 20 million-viewer mark. Given an average unit cost of around $2 million for each in-game ad unit, college basketball’s first sold-out title tilt since 2019 should prove to be a steal for marketers, especially when juxtaposed with the spring’s other top TV events. ABC’s coverage of the slap-happy 94th Academy Awards served up 16.6 million viewers, and while that was a massive improvement versus last year’s anemic no-show show, it still counts as Oscars’ second smallest audience on record.
The going rate for a 30-second spot in Sunday night’s Oscar cast was $2.2 million. Units in the Duke-UNC game, which barring an unforeseen catastrophe should top the Academy Awards’ deliveries, fetched in the neighborhood of $1 million a pop. If you’re among the insurance companies, wireless providers and automakers who snapped up inventory in Saturday night’s game, you got yourself one hell of a bargain.