This year’s NCAA Tournament has been about as compelling as you could have asked for. It has featured several dramatic game-winning shots (Loyola, Loyola again, Houston, Michigan), a historic upset (UMBC over Virginia), several impressive Cinderella runs (Kansas State, Florida State, Syracuse and, of course, Loyola) and high-quality basketball from the teams that have reached the Final Four.
But despite all that, ratings for March Madness on CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV have reportedly been only so-so. Per Austin Karp of Sports Business Journal, the tournament is down three percent from last year, which was an extremely strong year for the event.
Much of that decline owes to the Sweet 16, which featured nine teams seeded fifth or lower and, according to Sports Media Watch, averaged 10.5 million viewers on TBS and CBS, down 10 percent from last year. Per SMW, only two of the eight games in that round (Villanova-West Virginia and Kansas State-Kentucky) were up from 2017.
The Elite Eight, on the other hand, performed well for TBS and CBS. According to Sports Business Journal, the four games in that round averaged 10.7 million in total viewership, up five percent from last year’s TV-only numbers. The most-watched game of the Elite Eight, Duke-Kansas on Sunday afternoon, reportedly doubled as the most-watched Elite Eight game since 2005, demonstrating once again that even when fans complain after powerhouse programs playing deep into March, they still watch.
In fact, the lack of top seeds in these later rounds probably contributes to the slight ratings drop. Whereas last year’s tournament featured relatively few upsets and lots of juicy matchups (Kentucky-UCLA, followed by Kentucky-North Carolina, was the stuff of TV executive dreams), this year’s event has been packed with upsets, which inevitably lead to odd pairings.
That said, America does seem to be putting its eyeballs where its mouth is when it comes to the Cinderella-story Loyola-Chicago Ramblers. Per SMW, three of Loyola’s four games have been up over last year’s comparable matchup, including an Elite Eight clash with Kansas State that posted a 29 percent viewership increase from Gonzaga-Xavier in 2017.
TBS, which will air the Final Four this weekend, probably has reason for optimism moving forward. One of the two semifinal matchups features marquee programs with the No. 1s next to their names, in Villanova and Kansas, while the other game includes the fan-favorite Ramblers against a Michigan team that makes for a good Goliath. Monday’s championship game should be appealing regardless of which team teams qualify. Final Four ratings will likely be down because TBS has less reach than CBS, but the numbers figure to be just fine.