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March Madness audience trajectories bounce in different directions


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March Madness audience trajectories bounce in different directions

The championship contests of the 2023 versions of March Madness underlined differing viewership tales for the men's and women's college basketball tournaments.

UConn's victory over San Diego State University set a new audience low for the men's title game, while LSU's win over Iowa set the high-water mark for the women's sport and could lead to a transformation in rights fees.

The Take

➤ The men's and women's NCAA Division I Basketball Championships lived up to their March Madness monikers, delivering a slew of exciting contests and upsets.

➤ After getting off to a record start, the men's tournament saw the absence of perennial powers take a bite of its collective audience as viewership across windows on CBS, TBS, TBS and truTV declined overall, with the championship game hitting a viewership nadir.

➤ Conversely, coverage of the women's tournament grew by double- and triple-digits across ESPN platforms, culminating in a record 9.9 million viewers as the title game aired on ABC for the first time.

Paramount Global's CBS (US) averaged 14.7 million viewers for its April 3 coverage of UConn-SDSU, according to data from Nielsen Holdings PLC. That compares with 17.1 million viewers on Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. cable networks TBS (US), TNT (US) and truTV (US) and 18.1 million when digital watching is factored in for Kansas-North Carolina in 2022. UConn-SDSU now stands as the smallest audience for the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship game, dropping below the just under 16.0 million for Villanova-Michigan in 2018 when the title game aired on the aforementioned cable channels.

The Final Four men's national semifinals April 1 also sustained audience declines. The opener, which saw SDSU beat Florida Atlantic at the buzzer, averaged 12.34 million viewers, down 17% from Kansas-Villanova on TBS, TNT and truTV in 2022 but 2% above the equivalent game on CBS in 2021.

In the nightcap, UConn's demolition of Miami tallied 12.85 million viewers on average, 27% less than the 17.66 million that screened the high-profile battle between North Carolina and Duke in 2022 in Blue Devils' coach Mike Krzyzewski's final game.

The 2023 men's tournament got off to a record start with the first round averaging 9.2 million viewers on March 16-17, but upsets abounded and the absence of perennial powers apparently impacted viewership.

All four regional No. 1 seeds — Alabama, Purdue, Houston and defending champion Kansas — lost before reaching the Elite 8 round. Two of last season's semifinalists, UNC and Villanova, did not make the tournament, while Duke was eliminated in the second round.

Across the 67-game event, the combined window coverage across CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV averaged 9.55 million watchers, a 7% decrease from 2022 but a 4% gain from the 2021 event. COVID-19 canceled the 2020 tournament.

Under their current agreement, rights holders Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery alternate coverage of the tournament's marquee matchups. In 2024, the Final Four semifinals and championship game will air on TBS, flanked by telecasts on TNT and truTV.

SNL Image

Women's viewership

It was a much different trajectory on the women's side of the court, albeit emanating from smaller audience bases.

LSU's victory over Iowa in the championship game April 2 in Dallas averaged 9.9 million viewers on the ABC (US) and ESPN Inc. platforms, a 104% jump from 2022 and the most ever for a college basketball game, men's or women's, for the Walt Disney Co.. The title game aired on ABC for the first time, and the total audience included 742,000 who watched the alternate telecast helmed by top women players Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi on ESPN2 (US) and streaming service ESPN+.

The second semifinal March 31 in which Iowa and star Caitlin Clark dethroned South Carolina and ended the Gamecocks' 42-game unbeaten streak, averaged 5.6 million viewers, a 74% increase from the corresponding window in 2022; it ranks as ESPN's third-most-watched women's contest. LSU's win over Virginia Tech in the semifinal opener grew 60% from 2022's corresponding game to 3.4 million. The Final Four averaged 4.5 million viewers, making it the most viewed semifinal round on record on ESPN platforms.

Across 59 games, ESPN platforms averaged 983,000 viewers, a 55% increase over the 2022 tournament. Every round registered at least a double-digit advance from 2022's event.

The deliveries follow ESPN (US)'s most viewed college basketball regular season since 2014–15. Boosted by the 1.5 million watchers for a battle of then-unbeaten LSU and South Carolina on Feb. 12, the largest audience for a regular-season matchup on any network since 2010, the network's coverage averaged 190,000 viewers for 83 games, up 11% from the 2021–22 season.

Women's windfall?

The tournament upturn presumably comes at a favorable time for the NCAA. ESPN's rights contract for the women's event, as well as 28 other NCAA championships, expires after the 2023–24 school year.

The NCAA chose Endeavor Group Holdings Inc. to consult for the organization's media rights negotiations. The NCAA confirmed that talks with ESPN are expected to take place later this year.

It is unclear whether Endeavor will look to sell the women's tournament separately or continue to include it within the championship rights bundle, which also encompasses baseball, softball, men's and women's volleyball, soccer, and track and field. The properties are reportedly valued at a collective $34 million annually.

A gender equity study, conducted on behalf of the NCAA, whose findings were released in October 2021, indicates that the women's tournament on its own could fetch somewhere between $81 million and $112 million in annual rights fees.


Economics of Advertising is a regular feature from Kagan, a part of S&P Global Market Intelligence.


This article was published by S&P Global Market Intelligence and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.

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