CBS Sports' Sean McManus (L) and TNT Sports' Luis Silberwasser (R) on the background of a warmup between Florida and Colorado in the 2024 NCAA Tournament. CBS Sports’ Sean McManus (L) and TNT Sports’ Luis Silberwasser (R) on the background of a warmup between Florida and Colorado in the 2024 NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis on March 22, 2024. (Background photo from Joe Timmerman, The Indianapolis Star via USA Today Sports, McManus and Silberwasser photos via CBS Sports and TNT Sports.)

While many sports properties have been on a ratings upswing recently, that hasn’t really been true for men’s college basketball. Last year’s NCAA Tournament got off to a good ratings start, but then featured major drops in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and Final Four before a record-low in the title game. And this year’s college basketball season saw the women’s game post better ratings then the men’s in many cases, including on a season-long basis at Fox Sports.

However, on a media call last week heading into this year’s March Madness, both CBS Sports chair Sean McManus (leading one of his final events before he retires and turns that role over to David Berson next month) and TNT Sports chair/CEO Luis Silberwasser weren’t too concerned about what the ratings will be. Silberwasser ascribed last year’s late-tournament ratings slump at least partly to matchups, and to the Final Four runs of a number of surprising teams.

“I think a lot of this is sort of matchup-driven,” he said. “When you look at sports in general, I think the trend in viewership across the board is very, very positive, whether it’s NBA, NHL, or the Super Bowl that CBS just did. I don’t want to speak for Sean, but I think the ratings in sports in general are on an upward trend. But a lot of these things have to do with who’s playing, at the end of the day.”

Silberwasser said (again, this was before Selection Sunday) that he was excited about how the field was lining up.

“When we look at the selection of teams that’s going to happen and who’s in position to make the tournament, all of the teams that we want in terms of higher viewership, higher awareness, people know the players, I think we feel very good about the fact that this tournament will continue to have what people call the blue bloods and others that are powerhouses in the world of men’s basketball. But, you know, we can’t guarantee who ends up in the final, so it depends on that. We’ll see what the ratings are.”

But he said his focus is on putting out the best possible product, and letting the ratings take care of themselves (or not if the anticipated matchups don’t materialize).

“All indications are from a viewership perspective, and the offerings that we have on platforms and what we’re going to do with regard to all of the platforms that are broadcasting the game, the companion content, the talent that we have, all the plans are there to have a fantastic tournament from the content perspective, behind the scenes, the talent. We cannot guarantee what the matchup is at the end of the day. But if everything works out how we want it to work out, I think we’ll have a fantastic tournament in terms of ratings as well.”

McManus echoed similar sentiments, saying the matchups are the most important part of that, and are out of the broadcasters’ hands. But he also added that he feels there’s still strong viewership, it’s just not always fully reflected in how ratings are currently measured.

“We can’t control the ratings. I’ve said it for many, many years that the ratings to a large extent are dependent on who’s playing and how close the game is. I will say that when you look at all the ways consumers are accessing the tournament, the total amount of people I think is greater than it’s ever been. It’s just on different devices and different platforms.”

And he said that CBS has seen incredible demand for their tournament ad inventory despite last year’s ratings drops.

“Our sales for this year are incredibly strong, just as they were last year. And, you know, ratings to some extent dictate how happy the advertisers are; I can tell you the advertisers were thrilled after last year, and the demand is remarkable for this year.”

A pair of key ad executives for the networks went further on that still in comments to Alex Weprin of The Hollywood Reporter for a piece published Wednesday:

John Bogusz, the head of ad sales for CBS Sports (he will retire later this year), says that this year’s tournament is trending up high single digits in terms of dollars and pricing, as sports outpace entertainment in the marketplace. The entire tournament is “virtually sold out,” he says, with the Final Four and championship in particularly high demand (they are holding back a few sports in case there is last-minute interest).

“I would say it’s also reflective of the ratings,” says Jon Diament, the head of ad sales for TNT Sports. “The ratings for high profile sports continue to be very consistent, the demos are very strong. And there’s some really cool sponsorships and extensions associated with all those great properties in social and in betting and all the other things that sports brings to the table that marketers embrace. So I think sports has an advantage right now in the market based on audience flow and advertiser interest.”

McManus said on the media call that ad sales are really the key metric. And he said those are important for the future of the CBS/WBD NCAA Tournament broadcasting partnership, which runs through 2032.

“We’re delivering enough of an audience to make this business model work really well for the NCAA, Warner Bros. Discovery, CBS, and all of our advertisers and corporate partners. So if we get really close games, Cinderella stories, big teams winning, the ratings are going to be perfectly acceptable.”

Thus far, the ratings have been more than acceptable, with the First Four games pulling in double-digit year-over-year increases overall. And Thursday’s games also pulled in great ratings, with the tournament as a whole off to its best by-the-numbers start in a decade. And the results of those games seemed solid based on what the executives are looking for; there were lots of close games and several upsets, including three-seed Kentucky losing to 14-seed Oakland, but most of those “blue bloods” and powerhouses are still alive. We’ll see how the matchups work out for them in the rest of the tournament.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.