Hoop Dreams: TBS Preps for Cable TV's First March Madness Title

Official NCAA Backers Are the Key to Turner, CBS Success

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Duke's 68-63 win last year drew 28.3 million viewers.
Duke's 68-63 win last year drew 28.3 million viewers. Credit: NCAA

For the first time in the 78-year history of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, a cable network, TBS, this year will carry the national championship game. And while the shift away from broadcast marks a significant milestone in the annals of sports TV, media buyers say that it'll be business as usual when March Madness kicks off tomorrow in Dayton.

Buyers with skin in the tournament say the ratings for TBS' coverage of the April 4 championship game will almost certainly fail to out-deliver last year's Duke-Wisconsin final on CBS. Duke's 68-63 win drew 28.3 million viewers and a 16.0 household rating, making it the highest-rated title tilt since 1999, when UConn-Duke drew a 17.2.

That this year's championship game is unlikely to live up to the 2015 broadcast is largely a function of distribution. Whereas CBS' linear network reaches some 116.4 million households, TBS' footprint is a bit narrower; per Nielsen estimates, the cable channel is available in 96.5 million homes, or nearly 20 million fewer than its network confrere.

If the reach disparity suggests that TBS could very well post record low ratings in its first year as the host of the title game, buyers say they are confident that Turner's team-specific simulcasts will help bulk up the final numbers. During last year's Final Four, the two dedicated "Team Stream" productions on TNT and TruTV accounted for 30% of Turner's overnight ratings. (The Wisconsin-Kentucky game drew the highest preliminary ratings for a Final Four telecast in 22 years, and the Wildcats-centric TNT simulcast accounted for nearly a quarter, 23%, of the game's overall deliveries.)

"It'll all come down to the match-ups, and whether there's a big national draw in the final. You'd like to see a Duke or a North Carolina in there," said one national TV buyer. "If there's a big basketball school in there and the game's not a blowout, I think the simulcasts could help make up a lot of ground."

Of course, many of the advertisers in the Final Four and national championship game are clients with multi-year deals with CBS/Turner, brands that invest in multi-game packages. While there are some units being held back in the Final Four and the championship game, anyone who buys in scatter won't get the benefit of a ratings guarantee. While the networks do not comment on ad rates, buyers say that the few stray spots that remain up for grabs in the April 4 game are pricing north of $1.5 million per 30 seconds of airtime.

Enjoying outsized influence in the tourney are the official NCAA "corporate champions" (AT&T, Capital One, Coca-Cola) and "partners" (Allstate, Buffalo Wild Wings, Infiniti, Enterprise, Nabisco, Amazon Echo, Bing, Northwestern Mutual, Reese's, Lowe's, Buick, LG, Unilever and UPS). Turner estimates that NCAA backers will account for around half of the tournament's overall ad sales revenue.

NCAA Corporate Partners literally surround the games, as Infiniti once again will sponsor the pre-game shows, while Buick will support the post-game productions. Corporate Champion AT&T returns as the halftime sponsor. The three Corporate Champs will also sponsor the "March Madness Live" streaming efforts. Corporate Champs spend between $25 million to $30 million per year for the privilege of aligning themselves with the NCAA, while the Partners' investment tops out at around $15 million per year.

As it so happens, the official NCAA backers appear to have a significant advantage over the tournament's unaffiliated advertisers. According to Jay Leon, VP of sports research for Turner Sports, highly customized ads from official NCAA sponsors have been found to be far more engaging than vanilla creative by marketers with no official ties to the tourney. They also tend to be more effective in keeping viewers watching the TV screen rather than turn their attention to their phones or other second-screen devices.

In a series of studies dating back to 2013, Turner and Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience measured viewers' biometric reactions to commercials that aired during CBS/TBS/TNT/TruTV's coverage of March Madness. Highly customized ads -- spots that include explicit references to the tourney and contain visual representations of basketball or include larger-than-life hoops personalities like Charles Barkley or Shaquille O'Neal -- are not only far more emotionally engaging, but also help keep viewers' eyes trained on the TV during commercial pods.

"We saw a 36% lift in engagement with very highly customized Corporate Partner ads versus a regular ads," Mr. Leon said, adding that the souped-up spots for NCAA backers also out-perform some of the most high-profile commercials on TV. "The highly customized Partner ads are 22% more engaging than the average Super Bowl ads," he said.

In four years of studying viewers' reactions to March Madness ads, Mr. Leon has come to the conclusion that people remained more locked in to their TV sets as the tournament progressed. In the opening rounds, only 52% of viewers gave the TV their full attention during the ad breaks, while the other 48% turned their gazes to their smartphones or other handheld devices. By the time the Final Four rolled around, that retention level had jumped to 64%, Mr. Leon said.

Mr. Leon and NCN chief neuroscientist Dr. Carl Marci presented these and other findings Monday afternoon during the Advertising Research Foundation's Re!Think conference.

CBS and Turner first joined forces in April 2010, when the broadcaster and the cable TV giant signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal to share the rights to televise and otherwise disseminate March Madness. Per terms of the deal, the two companies share all revenues and expenses associated with the tournament, which generates an estimated $1.2 billion in annual ad sales.

While Turner will host this year's Final Four and national championship game, the broadcast duties revert to CBS in 2017. The two partners will continue to trade off in successive years.

The 2016 tourney tips off tomorrow on TruTV, when Florida Gulf Coast (20-13) takes on Fairleigh Dickinson (18-14) at 6:40 p.m. EST. The second game, which is slated to start at 9:10 p.m., pits Vanderbilt (19-13) against Wichita State (24-8).

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