March Madness Title Game: Next Event on Move to Cable?

TBS could land Final Four as soon as 2014

In the current multi-network era of college basketball’s March Madness, you might watch an instant classic that you’ll always remember — such as Harvard notching its first NCAA tournament win ever — even as you instantly forget who televised the game.

As a result, what otherwise would come as a shock to basketball fans next year might amount to little more than a ripple: College hoops’ crown jewel, the Final Four, is poised to land on cable.

CBS and Turner Sports have confirmed that their current NCAA men’s basketball tournament TV deal contains “a provisional option” to move the semifinals and championship to one of Turner’s cable channels as soon as next year.  Though there is no official timetable for the decision, a report by Sports Business Journal cites industry sources who believe that the Final Four will land on TBS in 2014 and begin alternating with CBS in ensuing years.

The speculation comes in year three of the 14-year partnership between CBS and Turner to broadcast college basketball’s 68-team tournament across four networks — CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV —  an arrangement that has trained most viewers to find the game they want to watch on whichever network has it, rather than locking into a specific channel and staying there. Though CBS had a higher peak audience in primetime Thursday than its March Madness cable counterparts, by the time Harvard’s upset victory over New Mexico (on TNT) took center stage, the gap narrowed considerably.

The stakes increase dramatically with the national championship, which averaged 20.9 million viewers last year. So at first glance, it might seem as strange for CBS to let go of college basketball’s title game — which the Eye has broadcast since 1982 — as for TV viewers to have to go to cable to find the showdown.

But that’s the bargain made by CBS, which would have struggled to keep March Madness rights from moving to ESPN if it weren’t for partnering with Turner. At the same time, the pact does protect CBS financially.

“The share of money CBS and Turner make through their partnership stays constant regardless of the channel that hosts the game,” wrote Michael Smith and John Ourand of Sports Business Journal. “Through their deal, Turner is responsible for capping any potential losses CBS might incur each year.”

As for sports fans, it’s just another step along a seemingly inexorable path of needing access to cable for access to major events. For example, college football’s finale moved in 2011 from Fox to ESPN, where it has resided the past three seasons. And while viewership on ESPN hasn’t reached the nearly 31 million who watched the final gridiron title tilt on Fox, it has virtually matched 2009’s 27 million in two of the past three years.

Though it isn’t a dedicated sports network like ESPN, TBS does have the same fully distributed household reach of approximately 100 million homes and already broadcasts Major League Baseball playoff games. Turner also has a strong reputation among basketball fans in particular, thanks to the NBA on TNT.

Consequently, it’s reasonably safe to assume that the difference in the early rounds between March Madness ratings on Turner’s networks vs. CBS would be largely mitigated come the Final Four, though certainly those shuffling through this big world without cable would be counted out.

Either way, the move of college basketball and football championship games from broadcast to cable speaks to a larger migration in the televised sports world, on the local level (witness the Los Angeles Lakers’ dedicated network, Time Warner Cable SportsNet, replacing over-the-air coverage on KCAL) as well as national. With Fox Sports 1 entering the fray this summer and taking more MLB playoff games from Fox as soon as 2014, you can already begin to picture the day the World Series ends up on cable. (Baseball’s current TV deals expire in 2021.)

It’s also entirely possible that the NBA Finals could beat the Fall Classic to the cable punch, given that ABC’s deal with the NBA expires in 2016.

The coup de grace of sports’ biggest games leaving broadcast TV would be the Super Bowl, which rotates between ABC, CBS and Fox. Who knows what will happen, but if it were simply inconceivable in years past, that word no longer means what we thought it meant.

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