NCAA March Madness prepares for the return to normal


A general view of the March Madness logo prior to the game between the Syracuse Orange and the Houston Cougars in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Aaron Doster | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters

After two tough and pandemic-disrupted years, the March madness we all know so well returns.

The 2022 NCAA Men’s Tournament begins Thursday on CBS Sports and Turner Sports. Disney properties ABC and ESPN will broadcast the NCAA Women’s Tournament beginning Friday.

Paramount Global and WarnerMedia executives spoke on Tuesday to promote March Madness, which promises to pour nearly $1 billion in ad revenue into the men’s side.

“The country is ready for the [NCAA] tournament,” CBS Sports President Sean McManus said.

“We’re back to normal,” added Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels. “And we want to take that and go further.”

The networks lost the 2020 NCAA tournament due to Covid. The 2021 event took place in a bubble and saw the Baylor Bears claim their first NCAA men’s basketball championship.

But this year’s tournament will feature the return of legendary programs Duke and Kentucky — both missed last year’s tournament — and legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski chasing his last title with the Blue Devils.

Can the men’s tournament attract 20 million viewers?

The production of this year’s NCAA tournament isn’t changing too much. Games will once again feature a virtual on-field timer. There will be in-game coaching interviews and Final Four matches will see rail and aerial cameras integrated into the broadcasts.

But will there be more viewers than last year?

The 2021 NCAA Championship game between undefeated Gonzaga and Baylor averaged 16.9 million viewers for CBS Sports, down 14% from the 2019 game. It was also the least-watched championship aired on CBS since that the network began airing the games in 1982.

The 2021 Men’s Final Four matches averaged 14.9 million viewers.

The NCAA Men’s Tournament returns to Turner Sports this year for the first time since 2018, when Villanova defeated the University of Michigan. This title match drew around 16.5 million viewers.

CBS and Turner have been running the Final Four since 2016. The last time the NCAA Men’s Championship game topped 20 million was in 2017 when the University of North Carolina took on Gonzaga. This game attracted about 22 million viewers.

On Tuesday’s call, McManus reportedly wouldn’t predict viewership around the 2022 tournament, but added “good games, good storylines, and as we know, when a Cinderella shows up, it’s good for ratings.

He also noted that bigger programs returning to the tournament should help the viewership. Additionally, measurement company Nielsen will combine the out-of-home audience with the final measurements. Out-of-home TVs are counted in places like airports, restaurants, and sports bars. Nielsen previously only provided in-home measurements for its linear television reporting.

McManus said Nielsen’s decision to combine the metrics is “good for the network and good for our sponsors, and it really provides an accurate count of how many people are consuming our content.”

On the women’s side, Disney is hoping to top last year’s title match between Arizona and Stanford. The pageant averaged 4 million viewers and has been the most-watched women’s pageant since 2014.

The 2021 women’s semifinals with Stanford and South Carolina averaged 1.6 million viewers, while the University of Connecticut’s loss to Arizona drew 2.6 million viewers, up by 24% compared to the second semi-final of 2019. Sweet 16 games broadcast on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 918,000 viewers, an increase of 67% compared to 2019.

A detailed view of the March Madness logo on center court as Gonzaga Bulldogs and Norfolk State Spartans players run during the second half of the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Kirby Lee | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters

March Madness commercials are sold out

Advertising inventory around the 2022 men’s tournament has run out, said John Bogusz, executive vice president of CBS Network’s sales division. Thirty-second spots for the tournament range from hundreds of thousands of dollars in earlier rounds to over $2 million for the NCAA title game.

Bogusz said the automotive, insurance and fast food categories are “very active and very strong this year.” Movie studios are also returning to rotating ads, while travel and tech companies will also promote around games.

TV ad measurement firm iSpot estimates ad spend around the 2021 men’s basketball tournament was around $1.05 billion, a 21.4% increase from the 2019 tournament. company told CNBC that AT&T was the biggest spender with $74.7 million on ads around the 2021 tournament. Capital One spent $48.7 million on ads, Geico ($46.7 million ), Buick ($39.5 million) and Progressive ($37.7 million).

Briefed on the estimates and asked if ad spend around the 2022 men’s tournament would top $1 billion, Bogusz didn’t reveal details but added that the projection was “within range.”

“It’s pretty impressive,” Turner Sports chief revenue officer Jon Diament said, referring to ad spend. Diament noted the time the networks have to deliver the games – “three weeks of activity…it’s pretty remarkable that we can gobble up that money in just three weeks of flying.”

Last September, the NCAA declared the 2022 NCAA Women’s Tournament to be included in the March Madness brand. The decision came after mounting pressure and criticism over the organization’s initial stance on using the brand only for the men’s tournament.

EPSN said it had also exhausted its inventory for the women’s tournament. Twenty-two advertisers, including Apple, General Motors, Target and T-Mobile, will run ads during the games.

The sports program advertising market remains a top purchase for advertisers. The National Football League Super Bowl remains the most expensive inventory. CNBC’s parent company, NBCUniversal, billed about $6.5 million for Super Bowl 56 ads, and some brands paid a record $7 million for a 30-second ad.

Yet the high prices of sports programs do not deter companies. Bogusz said “advertisers in all demo groups are allocating extra dollars” to buy inventory.

“It offers the best drama in all of television, and for many advertisers, it’s still the most engaging programming you can have,” McManus said. “And that includes the NCAA Tournament.”

When asked if the NCAA Men’s Tournament will increase to $3 million per 30 seconds when CBS returns to the event in 2023, Bogusz replied, “I wouldn’t say it would be that high. But we plan to increase prices as we continue to move forward.

Demonstrators protest against the war in Ukraine in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

Kay Nietfeld/photo alliance via Getty Images

War contingency plans

As the networks welcome a return to normalcy for March Madness, contingency plans are in place to update the top news of the moment – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“There are bigger things going on in the world right now than the NCAA Tournament,” McManus said. “Nobody will claim that the action on the ground is as important as the life and death action that is taking place in Ukraine,” he added.

McManus referenced the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to explain how the network would approach coverage. He said the networks would update the war in Ukraine as needed and “handle it in the best possible way”.

“We have two of the best production companies and two of the best news agencies,” Daniels added, referring to CBS News and CNN. “I think we will make the right decisions.”

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