In its seventh year in televising the NCAA Tournament, one can say the CBS and Turner Sports partnership has been successful. All of the games are available nationwide. Instead of waiting to be switched away from one game to another, you can pick the game you want to watch and if it’s in a blowout, you can change the channel.

The CBS/Turner marriage on the NCAA Tournament began in 2011 and was done mostly out of convenience for CBS. The contract was supposed to last until 2024, but because the partnership was so successful, the NCAA had the contract extended for another eight years through 2032.

And while there are the same questions every year, “Where is truTV,” “Why is Charles Barkley on college basketball,” “What happened to the Selection Show,” they don’t compare to the headaches fans had to endure when CBS broadcast the tournament solo.

But before we got to this point, there was the period where CBS was hemorrhaging money on the NCAA Tournament and almost sold the event to a competing network. Now think about that. You’re televising a signature sports event dating back to the 1980s, but because the financial losses outweigh the positives, you’re willing to get out of the contract by selling the event to a competitor.

And that’s what CBS was thinking back in 2009. It was airing the NCAA Tournament in the midst of a contract that would expire in 2013. Back then, CBS would air all of the games, but in four regional windows. If you were watching the game CBS sent to your area and heard of a potential buzzer beater in another region, you’d have to wait until the network switched from your game.

If you had DirecTV, there was the Mega March Madness package that allowed you to switch games yourself, but you had to pay extra. And CBS did have the online March Madness Live, but in the early days of internet streaming, the buffering in the first two days of the tournament would be so bad, it was hardly worth the effort watching the games on the Internet.

CBS knew it had to do something to get some financial relief so one option was to actually sell the last four years of its contract from 2010 to 2013 to ESPN. Before Turner came on board, CBS’ upper echelons met with ESPN’s parent company Disney to look at the potential of having the Worldwide Leader take over the NCAA Tournament. The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir wrote about the potential mind-blowing deal:

Central to CBS’s interest in paying ESPN to take over the tournament was what it owed the N.C.A.A. for the last three years of the $6 billion deal that started in 2003. CBS was obligated to pay $657 million in 2011, $710 million in 2012 and $765 million in 2013. Losses could have been at least $200 million a year.

CBS was also looking at losing $50 million or more on its 2010 broadcast of the tournament. Moving the 2010 tournament to another network on short notice would have posed difficulties, but it was part of the CBS-ESPN talks.

But eventually, both sides decided to pass and the deal never came to fruition. But imagine if CBS and ESPN came together on an agreement and how sports television would have changed. CBS which had been broadcasting the NCAA Tournament since 1982 would be out and ESPN would be in starting in 2010.

But instead, Turner Sports came in willing to partner with CBS thus relieving the network of its financial burden. Sandomir wrote Turner Sports president David Levy knew CBS was talking with ESPN:

… Levy …, said it was no secret to him that CBS was talking to ESPN. Levy said he learned about the discussions from Sean McManus, the president of CBS News and Sports, after he started his own conversations with CBS in October.

“And we were discussing our options with other partners as well,” Levy said. “Everybody was feeling each other out and trying to figure out who to deal with.”

Levy said his impression was that the ESPN option was alive at CBS until December. By then, he said, “We and CBS were partners and we felt CBS was no longer talking to ESPN.”

So it was Turner Sports to the rescue on a $10.4 billion, 14-year contract that would last until 2024. It brought together CBS with Turner networks TBS, TNT and truTV, allowing for all of the games to have national windows. When CBS and the NCAA opted out of the old contract, there was talk that the tournament could possibly expand to 96 teams, but the NCAA elected to go with 68 instead.

And as mentioned, the partnership has been so successful for CBS and Turner, the contract was extended for $8.8 billion to 2032 effectively shutting out ESPN until then.

CBS and Turner have made the marriage work and it’s become a model for sharing of other sports television properties (Thursday Night Football between CBS/NBC and NFL Network). Both sides are very happy and with the NCAA Tournament firmly locked in for the next 15 years, it’s hard to imagine anyone else televising the event.

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013.

He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television.

Fang celebrates the three Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.

  • kca13

    Thank God that happened. Glad we don’t have to suffer through ESPN for the tournament.

  • Jean H Pierre

    The partnership or marriage between a sports entity and a TV networks. Glad they didn’t go to ESPN/ABC FAMILY.

  • Bscotch Bscotch

    Something will change b/c there is no way TRU is in business in 2032.

    • GameFederer

      It can be moved to CBS Sports Network…

      CBS also has other networks they own under Viacom. SpikeTV is one of them. Turner has a small stake in HULU, that could be another option. Turner could also use HLN since it really isn’t a News Network anymore and it’d only really be used for two weekends out of the year.

      • Rob Witham

        A smarter option would be to make NBA TV, a Turner-owned property, available to the cable universe the last two full weeks of March and use it to replace TruTV, while, at the same time, offer a preview to get new subscribers just as the regular season homestretch began. I think the contract wouldn’t allow a second CBS property to replace a third Turner property, unless CBS was willing to part with a few Final Fours down the road (unlikely). Good point, though, above, as the cable universe as we know it may not even exist by 2027, much less 2032.

      • Bscotch Bscotch

        CBS controls CBSSN, Pop and Showtime – that’s it. Spike and the others are a different part of Viacom unrelated to CBS. And none of those 3 has decent distribution now, let alone in 2032.

        • Andy Salcedo

          Viacom is supposedly going to be folded back into CBS soon… Pending approval

      • there was a time when CBS Sports Network aired one game that aired at an odd time when CBS still had the exclusive contract. It was always some obscure game on the West Coast.

    • Respected Citizen

      TruTV is in only 3% fewer homes than TBS, so if anything, it would be rebranded.

      SpikeTV will rebrand as Paramount in 2018, but low-%-of-household channels Pivot, Universal Sports, and Cloo shut down.

      Of course, streaming will overtake cable by 2032 anyway.

  • pattywagon – SEELE 01

    Thank god ESPN didn’t get it. Don’t get me wrong, they have some good teams, but they would have shoved Dick Vitale down our throats with his diaper dandy BS. Meanwhile Jay Bilas will be at every Duke game saying he isn’t bias for Duke while he won’t shut up about how great Duke is while they lose.

    • Walt_Gekko

      The only reason to me ESPN didn’t get it was because the NCAA would have likely insisted on some games airing on ABC. That would have especially on the first Thursday and Friday put ABC stations in the west in a bad spot as almost all ABC stations air what is now “Live with Kelly” following Good Morning America. “Live” is a cash cow for many stations and there would have been tons of complaints had that happened. Also, “The View” would have been pre-empted except on the East Coast and especially then that would have PO’ed Barbara Walters, who was still a big part of that show at the time.

      That and other considerations with ABC likely were why the NCAA Tournament did not move from CBS and Turner was able to partner up with them.

      • danderson600

        But CBS didn’t preempt “60 Minutes” for the second West Region game on Sunday before they got the whole tourney in 91, when the NCAA insisted that all games be finished before “60 Minutes.” I think there was a exception in 94 for the Louisville/Minnesota game, since Sacramento was in the PTZ, and CBS had most of the network go to “60 Minutes” expect for the states of Kentucky and Minnesota, even though they could have delayed “60” to finish the game.

        • Walt_Gekko

          Actually, they could not wait for Louisville to finish in 1994 because at the time, “60” was still the #1 show and there was the risk of a severe backlash of people complaining to the FCC if that game went multiple overtimes and didn’t start until 8:30-9:00 PM in the east. “60” even now is the one show where its viewers will complain to the FCC if it does not start on time because its viewers come from a time when 7:00 PM ET was considered part of “The Family Hour” on Sundays that restricted programming to news or children.

          That 1991 game you spoke of I believe was at the time a violation of FCC rules that were still in place in 1994. I believe those rules were relaxed when the NFL went to 4:15 PM ET games in 1998.

          • danderson600

            I think the FCC got a lot more complaints with NBC’s shows like “Wonderful World Of Disney,” “Our House,” “Punky Brewster,” and “Hull High” because the AFC games at that time ran late because of not only a lot of passing, but a lot of scoring too, than with “60 Minutes” on CBS. I guess they also got complaints about syndicated shows during college football season too especially when ABC had exclusive rights to games starting in 1991.

          • danderson600

            But I wonder why didn’t the NFL or the NCAA or even MLB attempt to challenge the “The Family Hour” on Sundays that restricted programming to news or children?

          • Walt_Gekko

            Mainly because Churches had much greater say in how things were done until the late 1980’s-early ’90s, especially as more and more of the old “blue laws” that restricted sales of certain items and other things on Sundays were lifted. A number of Churches even now I believe associate pro sports with gambling to where some parents won’t let their kids watch such due to religious beliefs (it’s why I believe some companies that advertise heavily on college football won’t touch the NFL in fact).

            It was only when attitudes changed in the ’90s did the NFL go ahead and move the 4:00 PM games to 4:15, which was long overdue because it looked ridiculous anyway as many times games ran past 7:00 PM ET anyway and the FCC I believe relaxed that rule, in part because FOX never followed that rule anyway.

          • not quite the rationale you’re going with but my parents are pedantic Mormons (I’m LDS too but a little more ‘liberal’ but anyway…) and they always said I sinned when I watched games after Church because it breaks the Sabbath to them. Different strokes, different folks

          • danderson600

            Likely one of the reasons they got Turner on board; they didn’t want a situation where “60 Minutes” was delayed that late.

          • danderson600

            I can remember one time in 1987, when CBS stuck with the
            Providence-Austin Peay game in Birmingham, and there were complaints from people about that game cutting into syndicated programming.

  • Dave O’Connell

    I don’t miss the old setup, but it would be nice for CBS/Turner to commandeer a 5th network as a “whip-around” channel, like the one they do for radio, for those of us who have problems remembering where the other channels are on the cable lineup.

    • Andy Salcedo

      Then who would be that fifth channel? HLN?

  • if it went to ESPN, the event would have become unwatchable.

  • danderson600

    My thinking was the NCAA and CBS feared a possible backlash from viewers of “60 Minutes” if CBS still had the tourney to themselves. That’s why Turner got into the tourney.

  • William Haney

    If I may add a few things.

    I remember when CBS was in the last year of their TV deal back then. You would sense the sadness over the air at CBS. Plus a sense of arrogance from ESPN. Namely, Erin Andrews once saying the she “could not wait to work a Final Four” before anything was announced. Definately putting the cart before the horse.

    When the CBS/Turner deal was announced, I knew a GM of a CBS affiliate on Facebook. While he was not thrilled losing local adtime to Turner, he was just glad to have something. Aside from CBS programming kike the NCAA local ad revenue was tough for his station since their local news was (and still is) dead last in the ratings. At 10 p.m. CT, viewers in my market flock to the local NBC station. He needed the NCAA.

    Speaking of NBC, I had wished they would have stunned everyone and got back the rights. Some people may not know that NBC planted the seed for the NCAA Tournament coverage from the late 1960’s to 1981. I still wish they would get more college sports but that is another story.

    They need to use CBSSN alot more. Some games, a whip around like channel, maybe use them like ESPN does the College Football Championship and Semi-Finals this past season. This network is severely underused.

    When I think of college basketball on TV, I still think ESPN does all the work during the season and conference tournaments but CBS/Turner gets all the credit.