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Final Four Makes Fast Break to Cable

With rights fees skyrocketing, CBS will share NCAA basketball championship weekend with TBS

The NCAA men’s basketball Final Four, including the championship game, will be migrating to TBS, a continued sign of the narrowing gap between broadcast and cable.

CBS and Time Warner’s Turner unit announced May 7 that Turner’s TBS comedy cabler will broadcast the NCAA tournament’s semifinals and national championship starting in 2016, with CBS televising those events in 2017, and the two parties alternating through 2024. While the idea of a major sporting event moving to cable-only may raise some eyebrows, the two media outlets agreed to this scenario in 2010, when they signed a pact to share multimedia coverage of the popular tournament and the ad dollars that flow to it, due to escalating rights fees that made CBS’ sole position untenable.

Leading up to 2016, TBS will televise the Final Four semifinals and CBS will broadcast the championship game in both 2014 and 2015, the companies said. The 2013 tournament on TBS, CBS, TNT and truTV was the most-watched NCAA tourney in 19 years, according to Nielsen. The event averaged 10.7 million total viewers, up 11% from last year’s 9.6 million viewers.

The migration of the basketball tournament is just the latest TV property once considered to be the sole provenance of broadcast to move to cable, which can shell out more money because of dual revenue streams from subscribers and advertising.

Among the sports events making the leap: college football’s BCS Championship Game, which is now on ESPN rather than ABC; and baseball’s League Championship Series round, now split between Fox and TBS.

Starting in 2014 and lasting through 2024, coverage of the regional semifinals and regional finals games will be split by TBS and CBS. Earlier-round coverage of the tournament will continue to be televised across four national television networks — CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV — with the first four games airing exclusively on truTV.

The new schedule came about as a result of both companies wanting to have a piece of Final Four weekend, said David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports at Turner Broadcasting System, during a conference call. Turner had an option to broadcast both the Final Four and the championship in 2014, said Levy and Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, and both TV companies wanted to have a presence during those events. “We came up with a compromise,” McManus said.

The network that airs the games stands to reap the ad rewards. Between 2003 and 2012, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament generated more than $5.9 billion in national advertising from 266 different sponsors, according to Kantar Media, which tracks ad spending. Ad revenue in 2012 surpassed the $1 billion mark for the first time, Kantar said, displacing pro football as the top ad-cash generators in the post-season among TV sports properties.

The average price of a 30-second spot in the tournament came to $1.24 million, Kantar said, up 8% from 2011. Many of the NCAA tourney’s top sponsors buy large packages that can cost tens of millions of dollars.

Several details remain to be worked out within CBS and TBS as the NCAA tourney championship shuttles between networks. Sportscasters for the event are still being considered, Levy said.

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