CBS and Time Warner’s Turner have secured rights to jointly televise the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship for another eight years, ensuring the two companies will maintain their hold on one of the most coveted properties in TV sports through 2032 – more than a decade and a half into the future.
The two media companies will pay a whopping combined total of $8.8 billion for the right to provide live coverage of the popular tournament across any new-media platform, including any new ones that might develop over the life of the contract. And, despite low ratings for a championship game this year that was televised on cable for the first time in history, the NCAA said live coverage of the Final Four national semifinals and national championship will continue to alternate between CBS and Turner each year. CBS will broadcast the games in 2017 and Turner’s TBS will televise them in 2018.
The two companies changed the business of the tournament in 2010 when they agreed to pay $10.8 billion over 14 years to cover the games via TV, the Internet and mobile through 2024. As part of the agreement, all games in the championship were to be shown live across four national networks — CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV – starting in 2011, creating a new first for what was then a 73-year-old tournament that had aired on CBS for decades.
TV networks can’t afford to let the games go, even if the fees associated with them are becoming difficult to stomach. When CBS and Turner struck their pact in 2010, CBS Sports chief Sean McManus acknowledged that escalating costs had made keeping the popular NCAA event solely on CBS a more difficult proposition. To maintain a profit on the tournament, CBS had to bring in a partner or risk losing the entire affair. The deals are constructed so that the two companies maintain a profit throughout their course, according to people familiar with the matter.
At a time when TV viewers have more power than ever to watch their favorite programs at times and in places of their own choosing, live sports broadcasts continue to buoy the industry. Ratings for the Super Bowl continue to be some of the highest for any broadcast in TV history, and the wrangling among media outlets for the rights to show just a small handful of Thursday-night NFL games is something short of astonishing. This fall, NBC and CBS will share a parcel of games, disrupting their Thursday-night schedules to do so.
CBS and Turner decided to approach the NCAA about an extension last summer, said McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, in an interview, and came to terms just after the end of this year’s Final Four games. The NCAA was looking to restructure some terms of the deal, said David Levy, president of Turner, who declined to offer specific details, but noted that the conversations allowed for a deal extension while addressing some of the NCAA’s interests. “I think we mostly jumped the gun on everybody,” McManus said. “The event is working incredibly well for us. We have exceeded all of our expectations on sales revenue, online traffic, promotional opportunities and branding.”
The companies said TV coverage across CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV had reached an average audience of more than 10.2 million viewers over the last six years. Online, NCAA March Madness Live has more than doubled the number of its live video streams and live hours of consumption since 2011.
Despite the statistics, the companies ran into a hurdle this year as a spectacular championship showdown between Villanova and the University of North Carolina saw its audience fall by approximately 10.5 million, or 37%, compared with 2015’s final game. The figures raise questions about cable’s ability to deliver the mass crowds advertisers in big sports events covet. The average price of a 30-second ad the 2015 championship game was $1.56 million, up 5% from the previous year, according to data from Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending. The 2015 tournament nabbed about $1.19 billion in advertising, according to Kantar.
The companies pointed to a number of factors behind the ratings drop, with Levy suggesting the absence of teams with national followings, like Duke, Michigan State and University of Kansas crimped viewership. Levy also noted this year’s tournament was filled with what he called “bracket breakers,” or upsets by underdog teams who failed to gain further traction. But there are no thoughts about changing the current format or structure of the deal, he said. “The growth has been consistent, and we hope this year’s rating would not continue,” McManus said. “This was more of an anamoly of one year, versus a trend,” said Levy.
The two companies could find new ways to derive revenue from the event, Levy suggested. “If things do change in the ecosystem, we do have the right to go direct to the consumer,” he said. “When this deal was done in 2010, there was no Snapchat, Vine or relationships with Facebook and Twitter. Now we are all over those. Those are all monetizable destinations.”