Despite the dire predictions put forward by some of the nation’s best-compensated sports pundits and serial bloviators, Monday night’s NCAA hoops final between Virginia and Texas Tech turned out to be an absolute gem of a game. The rare title tilt to be decided in overtime, the March Madness capper rates as an instant classic; as such, it’s unfortunate that so many fans turned their noses up at CBS’s broadcast.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Virginia’s 85-77 victory averaged 19.6 million viewers and an 11.6 household rating, and while those are not inconsiderable numbers in an age of the Incredible Shrinking TV Audience, they also were rather humble by tournament standards. In the 36 years in which CBS has carried the college basketball championship, Monday night’s game now ranks seventh from the bottom in terms of overall deliveries. (The six games that fared worse all took place in the aughts.)
The Nielsen numbers do not include streaming figures or any other non-TV metrics. The median age of CBS’s audience was 55 years, or roughly eight-and-a-half years older than the crowd that tuned in for ABC’s coverage of the 2018 NBA Finals.
While the UVA-Texas Tech nail-biter out-performed last year’s Villanova-Michigan simulcast on TBS and TNT—the Wolverines’ 73-46 demolition of the Wildcats averaged 16 million viewers and a 9.0 rating—the 30-million-household distribution gap that separates the CBS broadcast network and the Turner cable channels makes for a less-than tenable comparison. Better to weigh Monday night’s results against the 2017 North Carolina-Gonzaga game, which averaged 23 million viewers and a 13.2 rating on CBS.
CBS eked out its lowest championship game deliveries in 2004, when UConn and Georgia Tech averaged 17.1 million viewers and an 11.0 rating. On the other side of the ledger, the network posted its highest NCAA title ratings back in 1992, as Duke’s 71-51 mauling of Michigan’s Fab Five scared up a whopping 34.3 million viewers and a 22.7 rating.
As it happens, that Duke squad made it to the championship three times between 1991 and 1994, during which it helped CBS attract its three largest college basketball crowds. The Blue Devils were also featured in CBS’s top-rated game in the 21st century, as its 68-63 defeat of Wisconsin in 2015 averaged 28.3 million viewers and a 16.0 rating.
Along with serving as the college basketball analog to the Dallas Cowboys, inasmuch as they are a team with a huge national following that also inspires an awful lot of frenzied hate-watching, Duke also represents one of the largest TV markets. Raleigh-Durham currently stands as the nation’s 25th largest DMA, accounting for 1 percent of all TV homes. By comparison, UVA and Texas Tech hail from far tinier home markets; per Nielsen, Lubbock is the 143rd biggest DMA, while Charlottesville is No. 183. Together the two college towns boast a mere 221,640 TV homes, or a fifth of Duke’s hometown reach. Hell, Syracuse reaches 130,000 more TV households than Lubbock and Charlottesville combined.
Many basketball enthusiasts assumed the UVA-Texas Tech game would turn out to be a joyless slog characterized by stifling defensive play and low scoring, and for the first several minutes their fears were justified. After a four-minute interval in which the Red Raiders carved out a 3-2 lead and more casual fans began to long for the eternal slumber of the tomb, both teams managed to shake off the yips and get down to business. At the half the Cavaliers had established a 32-39 lead, and by the end of regulation the score was knotted at 68, thanks to a Jordanesque De’Andre Hunter three-pointer that hit the mark with just 12 ticks on the clock.
Virginia ultimately pulled away from Texas Tech by going on an 11-0 tear, with eight of those points coming from the charity stripe. In winning its first-ever championship, UVA effectively exorcised the demons of a year ago, when it made NCAA history by becoming the only No. 1 seed to lose in the first round.
The last title tilt to require an overtime period was the Kansas-Memphis game in 2008. All told, only eight championship games have gone to OT in the 81-year history of the tourney.
If the Cavaliers’ big win was deserving of a larger audience, CBS still managed to out-deliver each of the five 2018 World Series games on Fox and all four of last summer’s NBA Finals broadcasts on ABC. The UVA-Texas Tech game currently ranks as the 18th most-watched TV program of 2019, tucking in between CBS’s coverage of the 61st Annual Grammy Awards (19.9 million viewers) and NBC’s presentation of January’s Golden Globes (18.6 million).
Per iSpot.tv estimates, CBS sold some $113.5 million worth of in-game ad inventory, with NCAA Corporate Champions AT&T, Capital One and Coca-Cola accounting for 15 percent of the night’s overall spend. In addition to those big boosters, official NCAA partners such as Google, Infiniti, Buick, Geico and Buffalo Wild Wings were also visible during Monday night’s broadcast.
As part of a proactive strategy that paid off nicely for all parties concerned, both AT&T and Buffalo Wild Wings last night had overtime-themed spots ready to go in the event the game extended beyond the bounds of regulation play. AT&T’s OT creative featured the brand’s ubiquitous faux-sportscaster “Phil,” who complained that the bonus basketball action would interfere with his restaurant reservations.
To say that Phil was wholly inescapable throughout March Madness is perhaps an understatement. According to iSpot, AT&T aired 282 commercial units during the tourney, making it CBS’s most-eyeballed advertiser. With an estimated investment of $68 million over the last three weeks, AT&T also was the tournament’s biggest overall spender.
Also showing up on your screen with near-metronomic frequency were longtime Capital One spokesmen Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee. The trio appeared in 122 March Madness commercial breaks, as Capital One shelled out an estimated $31.6 million to promote its services during the tourney.
Given an annual ad spend hike between 3 percent and 5 percent, Kantar Media projects that the total haul generated by this year’s 67-game tourney should shake out to around $1.37 billion.