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March Madness Ratings Madness

Comments  /  Sam Noel

After an exciting and, in many cases, heartbreaking three weeks of basketball, March Madness ended with North Carolina raising the National Championship banner. The tournament had its ups and downs. There were some unexpected wins and several unpredictable losses. However, when it comes to TV ratings and viewership, the 2017 Tournament was nothing but positive. From buzzer-beating finishes to surprise wins, the Final Four & National Championship games celebrated huge audiences on CBS, but this year’s success is all in the numbers. Here’s how the ratings stacked up:

Overall, the 2017 NCAA Tournament averaged a 7.2 rating, +13% compared to last year (CBS/Turner). One of the main reasons this spike occurred is due to the networks on which the Final Four and National Championship games aired. Since 2014, the Final Four has been broadcast on TBS, TNT, and TruTV. Last year, the National Championship game moved to Cable as well. 2017’s Final Four & Championship games aired on CBS only, and saw a significant increase in viewership. These ratings differences between network vs. cable broadcasts when evaluating the Final Four & National Championship games YOY since 2014:

2017 March Madness Ratings chart - big

While each year had its own unique circumstances that affected ratings, the most notable difference occurred from 2015 to 2016. The NCAA decided to move the National Championship game from CBS to Cable, which resulted in a -34% decrease in ratings. Even a buzzer-beater win from Villanova couldn’t save the 2016’s National Championship’s numbers.

This year, with South Carolina and Gonzaga making their first ever appearance in the Final Four, there were doubts about whether the final games would draw viewers. However, the Final Four & National Championship games were back on CBS this year, and each one was a nail-biter, which helped boost numbers. In fact, 2017 posted the second highest Final Four rating since 2005. And, the Championship match-up between a North Carolina powerhouse and an underdog in Gonzaga, turned out to be a huge success for CBS with a 13.2 rating against A18+ (Sports Media Watch). It was no surprise when the game’s ratings peaked between 11:30pm-11:45pm EST, as the game came down to the final minutes.

With increased media fragmentation and fans able to watch sports on multiple media channels, we anticipate that Sports carriers will continue to push their streaming channels and live sports apps to capitalize on non-traditional TV viewers. This has become a big trend in the past few years. NCAA March Madness Live (MML) is the app created by the NCAA as the home for March Madness. Through the app, viewers can access live games, statistics, news & more. In 2017, MML gained 98 million live video streams, a tournament record & +33% from 2016. The Championship Game alone generated an all-time best 4.4 million streams, +29% over last year (NCAA). Enabling its viewers to be able to watch any game, anywhere, at any time can only lead to good things for the NCAA.

March Madness 2017 was one of the few recent TV success stories in the world of live Sports. And, when the tournament’s Final Four & National Championship games return to cable next year, ratings may slide again. Unless Cable providers can find a way to capture viewers through streaming channels, we may see another big drop in March Madness audiences again next year.