Roughly 100 million people will tune in to the 68-team March Madness college basketball tournament this year. Played across three weeks, in 14 cities, from the first play-in games in Dayton, OH, to the Final Four in Minneapolis, fans, cities, colleges, and broadcast partners all benefit from the plentiful madness.
The first NCAA basketball tournament tipped off 80 years ago, in 1939, and Oregon came out on top of the eight-team event, beating Ohio State in the final game, 46-33. In 1951, the field doubled to 16, and in 1975 doubled again to 32 teams. It was not until 1985 that 64 teams made the dance. The current 68-team format was adopted in 2011.
In 1946, the championship game was televised for the first time, though locally and in New York City only, by CBS. Viewership was estimated at 500,000 viewers, an impressive increase over the first televised baseball game seven years prior.
Games were not televised live until 1969. That year, NBC aired just a few games – two games per weekend. The Final Four games were broadcast regionally, with the eastern half of the country getting the early game, and the western half getting the late game. NBC’s rights fee was $547,500 and ad revenue was just under $500,000.
In 1980, six-month-old ESPN picked up a few game feeds from NCAA Productions, airing games from the first Thursday and Friday of action. In 1981, ESPN picked up all 16 first-round games, and over the next few years added more and more hours of coverage. When CBS took over for NBC in 1982, national broadcast coverage of the event expanded as well.
In 2011, CBS and Turner announced a major change to tournament coverage. In their partnership, Turner’s TBS, TNT, and TruTV networks joined CBS for a joint 14 year, $10.8 billion contract to air and stream games. Two years ago, the contract was extended, with Turner/CBS keeping the rights through 2032.
Advertisers love the games. Ad sales have grown steadily, and tremendously. Kantar reports revenue for the games has risen 69% since 2011, the first CBS/Turner year, to $1.32 billion in national spending in 2018. For comparison, that is only slightly behind the 2018 NFL post season, which generated $1.68 billion in ad time. In the last ten years, the biggest spenders have been AT&T at an estimated $830 million, General Motors at $791 million, Coca-Cola at $399 million, and Capital One at $361 million.
AT&T has been putting a full court press on with their ads. Here is one.
Here is a Cap One ad featuring Larry Bird, star of the highly rated final game from 1979:
Did you know?
In the 81 years of tournaments, there have been 160 schools eligible to play, but four never have: Army, St. Francis (NY), William & Mary, and The Citadel.
In 2017, Northwestern played in its first tournament, the final school to qualify from a major conference.
The longest current drought between appearances is Dartmouth, who made their last appearance in 1959.
Seven tournament champions had undefeated seasons; San Francisco in 1955-56, North Carolina in 1956-57, UCLA in 1963-64, 1966-67, 1971-72 and 1972-73. Indiana 1975-76.
Due to limited and regional coverage by NBC at this time, many areas of the country saw these powerhouses only during the championship game.
The most watched and highest rated game is the 1979 championship game between Larry Bird’s Indiana State and Magic Johnson’s Michigan State – averaging 35.1 million viewers. NBC set a record with a 24.1 HH rating and 38 share.
2018’s Villanova vs Michigan title game averaged 16 million viewers, making it the least watched title game. However, when streaming views are added, the number grows.
The audience is desirable: Viewers’ median age (51) younger and median household income ($86,700) is higher than the average prime time viewer.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, at $295 million, may see some increased sales this year, with beer and wine available at tournament venues for the first time! Dilly, dilly.
With all this revenue, someone must lose, right? A Challenger, Gray and Christmas study estimates $13 billion in lost worker productivity during the tournament. But there is an upside: 89% of employers say office pools build better camaraderie at the office.
Thanks to media guru Brad Adgate for so many of the great stats!