The nation’s premier annual college basketball extravaganza begins next week, and it’ll be the third set of March Madness tournaments since the pandemic forced total cancellation in 2020.
U.S. television viewership overall was roiled by the COVID-19 situation as live sports and other programming went on hiatus or got radically juggled around the calendar before it began to recover in 2021. But add in the ongoing cord-cutting trend, changing consumer viewing habits, and the confusing rise of streaming services, and things have yet to fundamentally return to pre-pandemic levels — and may never.
So what can we expect viewership-wise for the men’s and women’s NCAA Division-I hoops tournaments?
Most likely, we’ll see the same eyeball trends we’ve seen in recent years, but several factors are pretty universal when it comes to the ebbs and flows of audience numbers: Storylines, superstars playing out of their minds, upsets, blowouts versus thrillers, how far historic powerhouses make it, tipoff times, competing programming, etc.
One significant change to the women’s tournament should help goose its audience numbers: For the first time, the women’s national championship game will live on ABC rather than on cable, meaning it gets exposed to a larger audience via the broadcast network.
ABC previously began airing women’s tournament games — the network shares Disney corporate ownership with ESPN — starting in 2021 with early-round matchups.
Now, the big one gets the big channel — ABC is one of the country’s five national broadcast networks and is available in all 121 million U.S. TV households.
Beyond just a spreadsheet of sterile viewership metrics, putting the women’s title game on national broadcast TV is another milestone for the ongoing trend of increased fan interest and corporate investment in women’s sports.
“This is another giant leap forward for women’s basketball,” said Mary Jo Kane, the retired founder and longtime director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
“What it tells me is that a major broadcast network is giving its imprimatur to women’s college basketball. They didn’t make this decision out of the kindness of their heart. They’ve seen the growth of women’s college basketball. It generated a great deal of fan interest and marketing potential.”
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And it’s beyond what critics and trolls will dismiss as a politically correct programming decision, she said. Disney is doing this because it believes the viewership and the advertising dollars are there to justify it.
“This is in their best interest economically,” Kane said. “It lets everyone know they consider this to be a legitimate enterprise. It creates more momentum for women’s sports in general and basketball in particular. It’s a sign of respect.”
That’s because the growth of the sport, especially as a media property, has led to promotion and wider public awareness of rivalries such as Connecticut and South Carolina, and made household names out of coaches such as Geno Auriemma and Dawn Staley, along with star players such as the Gamecocks’ Aliyah Boston and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.
“You have all the elements needed to create a prime-time show,” Kane said.
The women’s title game is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 2 — not a prime-time tipoff, but it’s also a day when most people are not working and traditionally watch TV.
The mid-afternoon Sunday tipoff puts the broadcast up against NASCAR’s Toyota Owners 400 on FS1, a handful of NBA games on local TV, a Bruins-Blues NHL game on TNT, the final round of the PGA Tour’s Texas Open on NBC and the first weekend of regular-season MLB Sunday afternoon games, with Formula One’s Australian Grand Prix on ESPN early that morning and a lone XFL game FX and “Sunday Night Baseball” on ESPN later that evening.
Odds are a competitive national title game will get a bigger audience than all of those events — and it doesn’t need gargantuan Nielsen ratings to be considered successful because TV programming isn’t a zero-sum game.
A year ago, South Carolina’s 64-49 win over rival powerhouse Connecticut averaged 4.85 million total viewers on ESPN and its platforms, which won the day’s viewership. It peaked at nearly 6 million viewers during the “MegaCast” that saw it air on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN+.
That total included an ESPN2 simulcast featuring Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and guests as a second-screen option accounting for another 218,000 viewers for the title game.
Last season’s entire women’s tournament averaged 634,000 viewers per game, which was 16 percent better than 2021. The two Final Four semifinal games improved year over year by 21 percent to average 2.7 million viewers on ESPN.
Larry Mann, an executive vice president at integrated sports marketing and media agency rEvolution, called the decision to put the game on ABC “a milestone moment” for women’s college hoops.
“Interest in women’s sports, both at the collegiate and professional levels, is only continuing to rise, especially in college basketball,” he said via email. “Last year’s championship game (and semifinals) saw great viewership, and the numbers will only continue to grow. I would expect this year’s numbers to grow past what was achieved last year and set up continued momentum for ESPN/ABC headed into 2024, the last year of their NCAA championships package. Next year I would expect the championship game to move to prime time as well.”
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Feel-good surprises can help bolster viewership, such as last year’s historic March Madness men’s tournament run by 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s, which knocked off Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue before more than 13 million watched its Cinderella season end at the hands of North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
Last year’s men’s title game, which featured Kanas rallying past North Carolina, 72-69, averaged 18.1 million total TV and streaming viewers across TBS, TNT, TruTV the NCAA March Madness Live app and other streams — making it the most-watched men’s college basketball championship game in cable history.
The last men’s title game to broach the 30-million-viewer average was Arkansas–Duke on CBS in 1994, and every championship finale has been under 20 million since 2017’s UNC-Gonzaga game averaged 22.99 million on CBS.
The full 2022 men’s tournament averaged 10.7 million viewers in aggregate for the 67 games on CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV, which was a 13 percent boost over 2021. This year’s tournament airs on those same channels. The NCAA March Madness Live app requires authenticated sign-in via your TV provider.
Things begin this weekend with the Selection Sunday program for the men’s tournament at 6 p.m. March 12 on CBS and at 8 p.m. on ESPN for the women’s tournament.
The men’s tournament begins with the First Four on March 14 on CBS and on March 15 for the women’s event on ESPN.
The Final Four on the men’s side is April 1 at NRG Stadium in Houston, and the title game is April 3 (tipoff times still TBA). For the women, the Final Four games are at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. March 31 on ESPN at American Airlines Center in Dallas.
Let’s not forget that all of this occurs because of money. For the men’s tournament, the NCAA’s broadcast rights deals with the networks originally were signed in 2010 and have been extended past their 2024 expiration to now sunset in 2032. The eight-year extension is worth a reported $8.8 billion beyond the original deal’s $10.8 billion value, with much of that financial burden carried by Warner Bros. Discovery-owned TBS and the rest by Paramount-owned CBS.
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Under the deals, CBS and TBS alternate live broadcasts of the Final Four and championship games.
For the women’s event, the rights are part of a 14-year, $500 million deal ESPN struck in 2011 with the NCAA to broadcast multiple sports and events on the network’s various channels. There’s speculation that when the contract is up in 2025, the NCAA could sell media rights for the women’s basketball tournament separately and for considerably more money.
The NCAA gets most of its $1 billion-plus annual revenue from March Madness and distributes about 60 percent of that money to member schools and conferences.
By moving the women’s national championship game to a broadcast network — ideally, a thriller that keeps fans watching to the end — the stage is set for additional interest and more money.
Burke Magnus, ESPN’s president of programming and original content, told The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch last year that long-term contractual commitments to “American Idol” prevent the women’s title game from getting the best prime-time slot that night. He did keep the door open to it happening eventually.
“It’s certainly something that we want to consider at some point in the future, but right now we’re happy to get (the move to ABC) accomplished and go from there,” Magnus said at the time.
Kane, who has researched women’s sports, including media coverage, for more than 30 years, agreed.
“ABC’s airing of this will help increase and cement the (women’s basketball) brand, which in turn will bring more eyeballs to ABC,” she said. “It’s a perfect feedback loop. This is a win-win. It’s a win for ABC and a win for women’s college basketball.”
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(Photo of South Carolina coach Dawn Staley celebrating the 2022 championship: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)