Two groups of people rooted for the Duke Blue Devils to beat the UNC Tar Heels in Saturday night’s Final Four matchup: Duke fans and March Madness advertisers. The four national championship games since 1999 that have featured Duke have also been the four most-watched, with 2015’s battle with Wisconsin hitting 28.3 million viewers.
UNC title games have been hit or miss. The Tar Heels have played in two of the three most-watched non-Duke finals since the turn of the century, but North Carolina’s other two appearances failed to crack 18 million viewers. (UNC's 2016 game appeared on TBS, which has a smaller reach). Since 2000, the men’s championship game has drawn an average of 20.6 million eyeballs.
Duke has bested UNC in their TV ratings rivalry, but a more evenly matched competition over the past 25 years has been between the men’s college basketball finals and the NBA Finals. During that timespan, more homes tuned into the most-watched college game than the most-watched pro game in 14 of the 24 years in which the tournament was held.
NBA Finals numbers have been volatile, with interest depending greatly on series length and starpower. None of the four games in the San Antonio Spurs’ 2007 sweep of a young LeBron James-led Cavs team drew more than 10 million viewers, but Michael Jordan’s final game with the Chicago Bulls in 1998 drew nearly 36 million. In contrast, every NCAA championship game has been within the range of 16 million to 29 million.
In the head-to-head viewership matchup with the March Madness finals, the NBA Finals are 0 for 6 since 1997 when the series hasn’t included Jordan, James or Kobe Bryant. A LeBron-less finals is nearly a certainty again this June, but the NBA will hope for a ratings rebound after two straight years of a pandemic-shifted playoff calendar.
One factor working against tonight’s March Madness finals: TBS and TNT get the game this year, but they reach approximately 17 million fewer U.S. households than CBS. The last championship game to air on TBS/TNT was the least-watched of all time, as sadly only 16 million viewers got to witness Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo score half as many points as Michigan’s entire roster in 2018.
Interestingly, the NBA’s nine-year TV contract with ESPN and TNT and the NCAA’s current 14-year March Madness deal with CBS and Turner Sports are in the same ballpark in terms of value on a per game basis. The former pays $2.67 million each year, just under four times more than the $771 million annually, on average, that the latter is worth. The NBA airs roughly 250 nationally televised contests in a year—about four times more than the 67 NCAA tournament games.
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