As March Madness Tips Off, Here’s Why CBS Will Sit Out the National Championships

Cable networks increasingly snag major sporting events

When Duke and UNC-Wilmington tip off the 2016 NCAA Tournament, CBS will carry the game, a tradition dating to 1982.

But as March Madness bleeds into April, CBS will find itself on the bench, as the Final Four and National Championship games will air exclusively on cable.

"We knew six years ago when we did this deal," said CBS Sports president Sean McManus. "We circled this date."

CBS has been sharing the tournament with Turner's TBS, TNT and TruTV since 2011, but until this year it had exclusive rights to the Championship game. "It won't look any different because it's on TBS," adds McManus. CBS' lead broadcaster Jim Nantz will still call the championship, alongside Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson. From now until the end of the rights deal–through 2024–CBS and TBS will alternate airing the Championships. TBS gets this year, part of a growing trend of major sporting events playing out on cable:

  • ESPN has rights to the College Football Playoffs for the next 10 years.
  • TNT has aired the NBA All-Star Game since 2003, and nearly all playoff games air on either ESPN or TNT. (The Championships still air on ABC)
  • Fox Sports 1 airs many MLB games, as well as the League Championship Series. TBS airs MLB playoffs as well.

Live programming, particularly live sports, remain among the most valuable content in today's time-shifted world, and the most expensive.

"It has more to do with the rights fees that are paid," said Jason Maltby, director of national broadcast TV at media marketing firm MindShare. Since cable networks have a dual revenue stream of advertising and subscriptions, they can often pay more. "That's why ESPN can afford to pay a lot of money for the [college football playoff]," Maltby said.

But that may not last forever. Increasingly, cable networks are under attack from cord cutters. According to SNL Kagan's 2015 subscriber report released earlier this week, residential subscriptions dropped to 96.7 million, a loss of 1.1 million for 2015. The consolation for the cable companies: The rate slowed in the fourth quarter.

Still, five or six years ago, the thought of airing a major sporting championship on cable would have seemed ludicrous. After all, broadcast TV still boasts the widest reach: good for fans and advertisers. But the gulf has shrunken considerably.

"The difference between broadcast and cable is almost non existent anymore," argues David Levy, president of Turner Broadcasting.

CBS averaged 15.5 million viewers during Final Four broadcasts in 2012 and 2013, while Turner averaged 16.5 million in 2014-2015.

Levy said ad revenue is on pace to be 10 percent higher than 2015. "This is the largest amount of revenue that we've had [in the six years of CBS/Turner sharing the tournament]," he said.

Since 2006, March Madness TV ads have generated $8.2 billion in revenue, according to Kantar Media.