WarnerMedia, CBS Hope NCAA March Madness Goes On

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In a year when everything seems topsy-turvy, the two media companies that broadcast one of the nation’s favorite sporting events are hoping their work on it will proceed as normal.

The top executives overseeing CBS Sports’ and Turner Sports’ annual telecast of the NCAA’s March Madness men’s basketball college championship said Tuesday that they were continuing to prepare for the event as if it would not be affected by the spread of coronavirus in the United States, though both were ready to shift plans if the NCAA decided doing so would be necessary, potentially resulting in games that are broadcast without audiences in attendance.

“As of now, everything is proceeding as scheduled,” said Jeff Zucker, chairman of WarnerMedia’s news and sports operations, during a call with reporters Tuesday. Both companies remain in close contact with the NCAA. “This is their decision to make to the degree that any decision needs to be made,”  Zucker added. They are in contact with local governments, and that really is what will determine whether there are any changes to the tournament.” Tournament coverage starts with CBS’ broadcast of a one-hour selection show on March 15, with Warner’s TBS offering the national semifinals on April 4 and national championship on April 6.

The two media companies involved, ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia, would no doubt like to do things as they have always been done. The NCAA March Madness tournament has become a national touchstone, with sports fans scribbling out predictions in the weeks leading up to the games and even relying on a “Boss Button” provided for desktop watching at the office. The companies’ 2019 broadcasts captured around $910 million in advertising, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad-spending,and CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said ad slots for the 2020 games had sold out. In 2016, CBS and the company then known as Time Warner agreed to put down $8.8 billion to lock up TV and new-media rights to the tournament though 2032.

The joint broadcast of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament remains one of the more unique arrangements in sports media. Where CBS once broadcast the tournament on its own, it joined forces with Turner Sports in 2011, making all of the games available via showings on CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV. Turner typically broadcasts the final two rounds in even-numbered years, while CBS features those games in odd-numbered years.

With so much at stake, the two executives expressed a desire to manage as if audiences would be in the stands – all the while maintaining they were prepared to move forward if that dynamic were not in place.

There is tangible reason for concern. The Ivy League on Tuesday announced it would cancel its coming men’s and women’s championship tournaments, and limit spectators at its sporting events. “We understand and share the disappointment with student-athletes, coaches and fans who will not be able to participate in these tournaments,” said Robin Harris, executive director of the Ivy League. “Regrettably, the information and recommendations presented to us from public health authorities and medical professionals have convinced us that this is the most prudent decision.”

With or without spectators, the NCAA game seem poised to go on. Game production would “remain the same” if fans are not in the stands, said McManus. Still, he acknowledged the absence of live audiences would create “a different atmosphere.”

But McManus suggested the presence or absence of fans would not hurt the ratings for the game, which he said he believed would “remain the same.” Executives believe U.S. consumers will turn to the tournament as a means of relief from tough times related to the current political climate as well as the growing coronavirus epidemic.

Executives are betting that the nation wants some form of the NCAA basketball tournament, no matter the tone of current events. If coronavirus concerns disrupt the trappings of the games “that will be part of the storyline. We will tell that story, but the games will continue and the games will be the primary thing,” said Zucker, who added: “There has been no contemplation of scaling down.”