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March Madness comes back strong with nearly sold-out ad roster, executives say

With March Madness fast approaching, U.S. advertisers that were caught by the abrupt, pandemic-induced cancellation of last year's basketball tournament are largely back in the game.

Coverage of the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship, which begins March 18, is on pace to score record ad revenues for rights holders CBS Sports and Turner Sports, with more than 100 advertisers securing spots.

Most of the marketers left on the sidelines by the pandemic last year kept their money, and about 90% have returned for this year's games, said John Bogusz, executive vice president of sports sales and marketing at CBS, during a March 10 call with reporters.

"We do have some attrition, but by and large most of them have come back, which is why we're as tight as we are right now," Bogusz said.

This year's tournament is seeing particular strength with the insurance, automotive, financial services, telecommunications and restaurant categories, said network executives. While restaurants were hard hit by public health lockdowns last year, the growing availability of COVID-19 vaccinations has these marketers more optimistic about the future, said Jon Diament, executive vice president and chief revenue officer for Turner Sports.

The Turner and CBS executives reported strong pricing for the championship weekend, though neither provided specifics.

According to media measurement and analytics firm Kantar Media Intelligences Inc., the NCAA men's basketball tournament generated over $4.5 billion in national TV ad spending over its past five events, including $910 million in 2019.

Studios, another category buffeted by the pandemic, will have a presence in the ad schedule. So, too, will streaming services, including two with home-court promotional ties: Warner Media LLC's HBO Max and ViacomCBS Inc.'s Paramount+.

Spots for Paramount+, which will stream the tournament games airing on CBS, also ran in CBS' coverage of Super Bowl LV.

This year's tournament will play out entirely in Indiana as part of the NCAA's pandemic safety protocols. CBS will televise the marquee match-ups. TBS (US), TNT (US) and truTV (US) are also in the coverage lineup, alongside digital platform NCAA March Madness Live.

Diament said some 90% of tournament TV advertisers also have schedules on the digital offering, a ratio consistent with past years.

Given that many people are still working from home due to the pandemic and that only one of the first round dates — Friday, March 19 — will be held on a weekday, Diament anticipates less out-of-home viewership, which has been included in the predicted audience numbers for ad sales. "We expect the Nielsen number to reflect strong viewership at home," Diament said.

Bogusz acknowledged that college basketball ratings have been "slightly down" this year and a little bit of inventory has been set aside "to take care of our advertisers if need be," though he pointed to some strong teams entering the tournament.

Cross-platform coverage of the 2019 tournament tallied an average minute audience of 10.9 million across CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV, TV Everywhere authenticated watching from those outlets, and viewing on the NCAA March Madness Live streaming platform for the 67-game tournament. That was up 9% from the 10 million total audience delivery in 2018, according to data from Nielsen Holdings PLC and video measurement and analytics firm Conviva Inc.