With an assist from a frenzied finish in the South regional final on Sunday, the audience for CBS Sports' and Turners Sports' linear coverage of the 2017 NCAA basketball tournament is up double-digits compared to last year's event, while live streaming has already reached levels.
Through 64 telecasts taking the 2017 version of March Madness through the regional finals on March 26, the 2017 tourney has averaged a 6.0 rating across CBS (US), TBS (US), TNT (US) and truTV (US), up 9% from a 5.5 mark at the same stage of the 2016 event, according to data from Nielsen Holdings. Thus far, this year's tourney has averaged 9.8 million watchers to stand as the third-most-watched event in 24 years, and 10% above the 8.9 million viewers from a year ago.
On the digital side, the NCAA March Madness Live app has attracted an all-time record 88 million live streams through March 26. According to data from Conviva, that is a 31% jump over last year's total, with three games – the national semifinals on April 1 pitting South Carolina and Gonzaga and Oregon versus 2016 finalist North Carolina, plus the championship game on April 3 – remaining. CBS will televise those contests.
Engagement across official March Madness social media handles continues to increase, generating 53.5 million engagements through March 26, up 75% from the corresponding stage of last year's tournament.
The four regional finals (two on TBS on March 25 and a pair on CBS the following day) averaged a 6.0 rating and 10.2 million watchers, both up 11% from a 5.4 rating and 9.2 million watchers in 2016.
Sunday's aforementioned South regional final, in which North Carolina edged Kentucky 75-73 with just 0.3 seconds remaining, was seen by 15.5 million viewers on CBS on average, making it the second-most-watched regional final since 17.9 million in 2005. The telecast was up 5% from the comparable window in 2015, featuring Duke and Gonzaga. North Carolina-Kentucky peaked with 22.1 million watchers in the 7:15 p.m. ET quarter hour.
David Levy, president of Turner Broadcasting System Inc., on a March 27 conference call about the Final Four, called the increases on TV, digital and social "an incredible feat for this omnibrand" across all platforms.
Levy attributed the ratings success to the tightness of the games. "There has only been one overtime game (Florida topped Wisconsin on March 24), but it seems like every game has gone to the last moment," he said noting that last year's tourney suffered from 11 upsets in the first two days that removed a number of the "name brand" schools.
This year, he pointed out, teams like Duke, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA stayed deeper into the tournament, keeping brackets and viewer interest intact longer.
Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, believes the momentum "we've felt instinctively across the first two weekends" of the tourney will continue.
McManus said having two teams in Gonzaga and Oregon from the West Coast "can't hurt" viewing from a geographic perspective.
However, McManus noted that ratings on championship weekend will be based on the "closeness and excitement" of the contests. Last year's national semifinals games — Villanova-Oklahoma and North Carolina-Syracuse were blowouts — before the Wildcats claimed the championship with a game-ending shot over the Tar Heels.