March Madness All But Sold Out

CBS, Turner eye another lucrative tournament

Unless you’re a starry-eyed Valpo alum with more school spirit than common sense, there’s a good chance your March Madness brackets remain relatively unscathed at this early juncture. And while there’s no way of determining exactly who will be cutting down the nets in the Georgia Dome on April 8, media partners CBS and Turner Sports already seem poised for another substantial revenue victory. 

According to insiders, all 67 games of the 2013 NCAA Men’s Div. I Basketball Tournament are virtually sold out across CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV. All told, more than 95 percent of the available in-game inventory has been claimed by marketers, making this year’s dance even tighter than the 2012 tourney.

For all intents and purposes, the big-ticket Final Four and National Championship games are sold out, with a 30-second unit in the title tilt fetching as much as $1.6 million—up 10 percent versus last year’s going rate of $1.45 million a pop.

While the networks did not comment on pricing, sources said that first- and second-round games are fetching around $250,000 per spot, with costs escalating as the tournament progresses. On average, a :30 in CBS’ Final Four coverage is commanding as much as $1.1 million.

Automotive, financial services and telecom have accounted for the lion’s share of commitments, followed by QSR and tech/consumer electronics.

As is always the case, the NCAA’s official corporate sponsors are flooding the premium-sponsorship zone. Nissan’s Infiniti has its fingerprints all over the NCAA Tip-Off pregame show, while General Motors’ Buick has signed on as the presenting sponsor of each Inside March Madness postgame show.

Among the NCAA Corporate Champions—the term denotes the three elite sponsors that invest north of $35 million per year for the privilege of aligning themselves with the tourney—Capital One is sponsoring the Tournament Central studio show, while AT&T is propping up every halftime show. (Atlanta-based Coca-Cola is the third Corporate Champion.)

From a ratings perspective, the early returns for March Madness look promising. Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings, the “First Four” play-in games on truTV drew an aggregate 4.48 million viewers on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, marking a 14 percent increase versus last year’s comparable telecasts (3.94 million).

That said, the lack of a consensus favorite could impact ratings in the later rounds. “Our projection for this year is that ratings will be down slightly…although there’s always some unpredictability in sports,” said Sam Sussman, who handles sports activation/buying as svp, director at Starcom Worldwide. “But even if ratings are down, we’re still looking at a property that will be up versus the last year CBS went it alone [2010].”

Last year’s tourney delivered an average audience of 9.6 million viewers and a 6.1 household rating, marking a 6 percent decline versus the 2011 event. The Kentucky-Kansas title tilt served up 20.9 million viewers and a 12.3 HH rating, a 5 percent improvement from the 20.1 million viewers/11.7 rating secured by the year-ago Butler-UConn broadcast.

Sussman said the absence of a true national marquee player—think Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse, 2003) or Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina, 2009)—could dampen the enthusiasm of more casual fans. At the same time, March is literally the perfect time for a three-week spectacle.

“Everything is revving up during a lull in the broadcast season, from both an entertainment and sports perspective,” Sussman said. “Football’s over, baseball season doesn’t start until April and the NHL and NBA playoffs are still a ways off. So the tournament gets center stage.”

A University of Wisconsin alum, Sussman has stamped the Badgers’ Final Four ticket in at least one of his March Madness brackets. Tribal loyalties aside, the sports buyer admits that anyone who didn’t go to school in Madison isn’t going to be overjoyed to see the No. 5 seed go deep in the West.

“As much as everyone loves an underdog, lower-seeded teams don’t really help ratings,” Sussman said, noting that fifth-seeded Butler’s improbable run in 2010 resulted in one of the most tedious, one-sided title games in March Madness history. “Legacy teams, big markets and competitive games are all factors in the final ratings picture. When it comes down to it, we really want to see two marquee teams with big fan bases representing major markets. Simple as that.”

While there’s little doubt that CBS and Turner are making a killing on the tournament, Sussman’s math suggests that the total ad sales haul falls well short of Kantar Media’s $1 billion estimate. “Their numbers are so far off,” he said. “I’m not sure about their methodology, but there is no way the tournament brings in that much revenue.”

Insiders suggest that last year’s tourney took in around $775 million in ad sales revenue—not chicken feed, by any reckoning. Given the relative price increases this time around, overall sales could add up to as much as $875 million.

At press time, eight games have aired in their entirety. Tonight's prime-time games are: Missouri-Colorado (9:20 p.m. EST, TBS), Akron-VCU (9:45, CBS), Harvard-New Mexico (9:50, TNT) and Syracuse-Montana (9:57, truTV).

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