Entering the Final Four, 2019 March Madness is the second-most watched tournament since 1991, boosted by the combination of strong linear viewership and record consumption on digital platforms
Now, the question as the tournament reaches U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis April 6 and April 8 is whether rights holders CBS Corp.'s CBS Sports and AT&T Inc.'s Turner Sports can continue the momentum in the absence of tournament favorite Duke, which fell to Michigan State in the East regional final.
The first 64 games of the 2019 Men's Division I Basketball Championship drew an average minute audience of 10.2 million viewers across CBS (US), TBS (US), TNT (US) and truTV (US), and the varied platforms tied to streaming service NCAA March Madness Liv, according to data from Nielsen Holdings PLC and Conviva, a video measurement and analytics firm. That represents an 8% jump through the corresponding stage of the 2018 event.
From a linear perspective, coverage on the four networks has averaged 9.8 million viewers thus far, up 6.5% from 9.2 million last year. The TV performance ranks as fourth-most-watched event coverage to date since 1993. It should be noted that this is the second year the tournament has used total audience delivery measurement, as comparisons from 1991-2017 reflect only linear metrics.
CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus on an April 2 conference call said that interest in the tournament will carry through the Final Four and championship game, and he expects there will be "good numbers."
The two national semifinal matchups in 2018 generated an average audience of 13.4 million across TBS, TNT and TruTV and the streaming service, a 14.5% jump from 2016, the last time the games aired on the Turner networks. However, it represented a 20.2% decline from the 16.8 million average in 2017 on CBS, which has a much larger reach than the cable networks.
McManus said advertising sales, managed together by CBS and Turner, have been strong, and the marquee matches — Auburn-Virginia in the first national semifinal and Texas Tech-Michigan State in the nightcap on April 6 and championship contest two days later — are sold out. He also noted that with the tournament meeting expectations, the parties did not have to produce any make-good units for audience deficiencies.
Last year, 99 advertisers spent a collective $1.32 billion nationally against the tournament's linear game coverage, as well as pre- and post-contest fare, according to an estimate from media and marketing analysis firm Kantar Media Intelligences Inc. That was up from $1.28 billion from 97 advertisers for the 2017 tournament.
On the digital side, Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels said all metrics on March Madness Live have registered gains, including virtual reality. "Those numbers are still relatively small, but they continue to improve and move in the right direction," he said.
Daniels also said social media has been "off the charts," with official NCAA March Madness social platforms counting a 117% lift in engagements across Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Instagram Inc. accounts.
All told, over 22 million live tournament hours have been consumed — already a new record for any single tournament — and a 30% jump from this stage of the 2018 event. Meanwhile, there have been almost 94 million livestreams, up 31% from last year at the same stage and on pace to produce an all-time record.