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NCAA's March Madness Is Preparing for Its Return to Normal, With Some Twists

Aaron Doster | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters
  • NCAA's March Madness basketball tournaments are working to get back to a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy.
  • The 2022 men's NCAA Tournament starts Thursday on CBS Sports and Turner Sports. Disney properties ABC and ESPN will air the women's NCAA tournament starting Friday.
  • This year, the March Madness brand will be used for the women's tournament, as well.
  • Ad slots are sold out for both tournaments, according to networks.

After two rocky, pandemic-disrupted years, the March Madness we all know so well is coming back.

The 2022 men's NCAA Tournament starts Thursday on CBS Sports and Turner Sports. Disney properties ABC and ESPN will air the women's NCAA tournament starting Friday.

Executives from Paramount Global and WarnerMedia spoke on Tuesday to promote March Madness, which promises to pay out nearly $1 billion in advertising revenue on the men's side.

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

"We're getting back to being normal," added Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels. "And we want to take that and go a step further."

The networks lost the 2020 NCAA tournament due to Covid. The 2021 event was held in a bubble and saw the Baylor Bears win their first NCAA men's basketball championship.

But this year's tournament will include the return of storied programs Duke and Kentucky – both missed last year's tournament – and legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski chasing his final title with the Blue Devils.

Can the men's tournament lure 20 million viewers?

The production of this year's NCAA tournament isn't changing too much. Games will again feature a virtual shot clock on the court. There will be in-game coach's interviews, and Final Four games will see rail and sky cameras integrated into broadcasts.

But will more viewers watch than they did last year?

The 2021 NCAA championship game between undefeated Gonzaga and Baylor attracted an average of 16.9 million viewers for CBS Sports, a 14% decline from the 2019 game. It was also the least-watched championship aired on CBS since the network started broadcasting the games in 1982.

The 2021 men's Final Four games drew an average of 14.9 million viewers.

The NCAA men's tournament returns to Turner Sports this year for the first time since 2018, when Villanova beat the University of Michigan. That title game drew roughly 16.5 million viewers.

CBS and Turner have rotated the Final Four since 2016. The last time the NCAA men's championship game topped 20 million came in 2017 when the University of North Carolina played Gonzaga. That game attracted approximately 22 million viewers.

On Tuesday's call, McManus wouldn't predict viewership around the 2022 tournament but added "good games, good storylines, and as we know when a Cinderella pops up, that's good for ratings."

He also noted more prominent programs returning to the tournament should help viewership. In addition, measurement company Nielsen will combine out-of-home viewership with the final metrics. Out-of-home TVs are counted in places like airports, restaurants and sports bars. Nielsen previously provided only at-home metrics for its linear TV reports.

McManus said Nielsen's decision to combine the metrics is "good for the network and good for our sponsors, and it truly does provide an accurate count of how many people are consuming our content."

On the women's front, Disney hopes to top last year's title game between Arizona and Stanford. The contest attracted an average of 4 million viewers and was the most-watched women's contest since 2014.

The women's 2021 semifinal games featuring Stanford and South Carolina drew an average of 1.6 million viewers, while the University of Connecticut's loss to Arizona had 2.6 million viewers, up 24% from the 2019 second semifinal contest. Sweet 16 games aired on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 918,000 viewers, which is up 67% from 2019.

A detailed view of the March Madness logo at center court as Gonzaga Bulldogs and Norfolk State Spartans players run by during the second half in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Kirby Lee | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters
A detailed view of the March Madness logo at center court as Gonzaga Bulldogs and Norfolk State Spartans players run by during the second half in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

March Madness ads are sold out

Ad inventory around the 2022 men's tournament is sold out, said John Bogusz, an executive vice president at CBS Network's sales division. Thirty-second spots for the tournament run from hundreds of thousands of dollars in the earlier rounds to more than $2 million for the NCAA title game.

Bogusz said automotive, insurance and fast-food categories are "very active and very strong this year." Movie studios are also returning to the ad rotation, while travel and technology companies will also promote around the games.

TV ad measurement company iSpot estimates ad spend around the 2021 men's basketball tournament was about $1.05 billion, that's up 21.4% when compared with the 2019 tournament. The firm told CNBC that AT&T was the top spender at $74.7 million for ads around the 2021 tournament. Capital One spent $48.7 million for ads, Geico ($46.7 million), Buick ($39.5 million) and Progressive ($37.7 million).

Told of the estimates and asked if ad spend around the 2022 men's tournament would top $1 billion, Bogusz didn't reveal specifics but added the projection is "in the range."

"It's quite impressive," said Jon Diament, Turner Sports' chief revenue officer, referring to the ad spend. Diament noted the amount of time the networks have to air the games – "three weeks of activity … it's quite outstanding that we can gobble that money up in just a three-week flight."

Last September, the NCAA said the 2022 NCAA women's tournament would be included in the March Madness brand. The decision came after growing pressure and criticism over the organization's original stance on using the trademark just for the men's tournament.

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

The sports programming ad marketplace remains a top buy for advertisers. The National Football League's Super Bowl remains the most expensive inventory. CNBC parent company NBCUniversal charged roughly $6.5 million for Super Bowl 56 commercials, and some brands paid a record-high $7 million for a 30-second ad.

Still, the high prices around sports programming aren't deterring companies. Bogusz said "advertisers across all demo groups are allocating additional dollars" to purchase inventory.

"It provides the best drama in all of television, and to many advertisers, it's still the most attractive programming you can possibly have," said McManus. "And that includes the NCAA tournament."

Asked whether the NCAA men's tournament would increase to $3 million per 30 seconds when CBS returns to the event in 2023, Bogusz responded: "I wouldn't say it would be that high. But we anticipate increasing pricing as we continue to move forward."

Demonstrators protest against the war in Ukraine in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images
Demonstrators protest against the war in Ukraine in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

War contingency plans

While networks are welcoming a return to normal for March Madness, there are contingency plans in place for updating the top news of the moment – Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"There are more important things happening in the world right now than the NCAA tournament," McManus said. "No one is going to pretend that the action on the court is as important as the life-and-death action that is happening in Ukraine," he added.

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

"We have two of the best production companies and two of the best news organizations," added Daniels, referring to CBS News and CNN. "I think we'll make the right decisions."

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