First, the (somewhat) bad news for CBS and Turner: heading into the start of the NCAA Tournament this week, Selection Show viewership dipped. 5.46 million viewers watched on CBS following Illinois’ overtime win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, a decline of 12% from the 2019 Selection Show (which drew 6.20 million viewers, the highest since 2014).
And now, the good news: while viewership was down, it’s still up from the series of much-derided, longer Selection Shows that took place in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Viewership in 2016 was a record-low, driven in part by the fact that it was *two hours long* and (this is hindsight speaking) everyone hated it. In 2017, the NCAA “fixed” the Selection Show by cutting its length by a half hour, but viewership declined again. Viewership really bottomed out in 2018 with a move to TBS, an expansion *back* to two hours, and a new format that immediately looked like a mistake.
Two years ago, the Selection Show was cut down to an hour and was reformatted to be more conventional, and shockingly, fans responded positively. That format returned again this year (though the one hour window was even shorter thanks to the preceding game’s overtime), and while viewership didn’t return to its 2019 level, it was still an improvement on the absolutely horrendous editions from prior years.
Does this mean anything for the tournament itself? Well, probably not, especially with the changes in game windows (First Four going from Tuesday to Thursday, first two rounds each getting bumped back a day, Sweet 16 and Elite 8 each getting bumped back two days and each game airing in an exclusive window) and the lack of bluebloods Duke and Kentucky.
Overall, I’m excited for the tournament after a year away, and I feel like viewership will be fine. And hey, if it does decline, the NCAA can just look at nearly every other American sport that’s declined over the last year and realize they’re not alone.