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Kentucky Fried Ratings: Slight Uptick for NCAA Hoops Final

Wildcats-Jayhawks tilt draws 20.9 million viewers

Kentucky celebrates after topping Kansas in the NCAA title game. | Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

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Despite yet another late finish in the East and a lopsided pairing on the floor, CBS’ coverage of the 2012 NCAA men’s basketball national championship game put up respectable numbers.

Monday night’s Kentucky-Kansas matchup averaged 20.9 million viewers, up 4 percent from 20.1 million a year ago (UConn/Butler), per Nielsen fast nationals. That said, this year’s title tilt was down 13 percent from the 2010 championship game (Duke/Butler), which delivered 23.9 million viewers.

That the 2012 title game drew the second-largest audience in the last seven years says a good deal about the state of NCAA hoops ratings. Since peaking in 1992 with Duke’s 71-51 blowout of Michigan (34.3 million viewers), deliveries have eroded steadily. 

In the last decade, only four title games have cracked the 20 million mark—the 2010-12 broadcasts and the North Carolina-Illinois battle in 2005, which drew a 10-year high of 23.9 million viewers. Ten of the least-watched title games aired within the last 13 years.

Of course, last night’s numbers would have been much stronger if Kentucky hadn’t been so dominant. The Wildcats suited up a full complement of NBA-caliber talent—that’s a literal assessment; none of the starters is expected to return for another season of college ball—and took an 18-point lead late in the first half.

Here’s how overpowering Kentucky was last night: Freshman Anthony Davis, who is likely to be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, scored just six points on a 1-for-10 night but was an absolute terror on defense. The 6-foot 10-inch center grabbed 16 rebounds, blocked six shots and so unnerved Kansas shooters that they seemed to fall to pieces in the lane.

With Doron Lamb’s 22 points and a 14-point contribution from Marquis Teague, Kentucky didn’t miss Davis’ shooting hand. And by the time Kansas made a run, going on a 16-6 tear that whittled the Wildcats’ lead to five, it was just a few minutes before midnight on the East Coast. But for the diehards, most viewers in basketball capitals like New York, Boston and Philadelphia had already retired for the night.

Kentucky held on to win 67-59, securing its eighth national championship and first since 1998. Interestingly enough, the last six times Kentucky has won the NCAA hoops title (‘49, ‘51, ‘58, ‘78, ‘96 and ‘98), the New York Yankees have gone on to win the World Series that fall. 

All told, last night’s game ranks as the eighth-least watched final since 1973, when the title game first began airing in prime time. The smallest turnout for a title tilt: 17.1 million viewers, UConn vs. Georgia Tech, April 5, 2004.

Advertisers invested as much as $1.5 million for a 30-second spot in the NCAA championship game.  Nearly every major auto manufacturer was represented in the 2012 tourney, a roster that includes official NCAA sponsor General Motors (Buick), as well as Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Infinity, Mazda, Mercedes and Volkswagen.