Open NCAA Field Puts Ratings Expectations Up in the Air

CBS and Turner hoping powerhouses, Cinderella teams emerge to drive viewership

By the time you read this, the 2013
NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship’s
Selection Sunday will have revealed the
68 teams vying to cut down the nets in Atlanta on April
8, but the tournament likely will be no closer to having
any clear-cut frontrunners, leaving viewership predictions
also a question mark.

In a college basketball season that has seen five
teams trade the No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll
and a wide-open field of other power teams, analysts
are predicting a bracket-busting tournament.

“It’s certainly been up and down, tumultuous, a
number of teams have not really squeezed the No. 1
ranking so it’s been exciting from that standpoint,” says
CBS Sports NCAA Tournament analyst Clark Kellogg,
who reasons that this is partly due to star players entering
the NBA draft after their freshman year. “That’s
continued to squeeze the gap between the power conference
teams and the non-power conference teams.”

While Cinderella teams can produce compelling
story lines that draw in more casual basketball fans,
CBS and Turner executives are unsure whether the uncertainty
of having no clear frontrunners is good or bad
for viewership of the tournament.

“It’s a great debate,” says David Levy, president of
sales, distribution and sports for Turner Broadcasting
System. “I’d like to see obviously big names, big brands
get in, but you know we had great ratings when it was
Butler in the finals and VCU [Virginia Commonwealth
University] so I think it’s about quality of the game and
interest. Cinderella teams are as interesting as dominant

In 2011, the first year after CBS and Turner inked
a joint 14-year, $10.8 billion deal for the rights to the
NCAA Championship, average household ratings for
the tournament increased 7% for a culmination that
saw the University of Connecticut defeat underdog
Butler University. When the University of Kentucky
topped fellow marquee franchise University of Kansas
in 2012, household ratings declined 5% for the tournament.
In order to get viewership on the upswing this
year, execs are hoping for a mix of underdog teams and
national powerhouses.

“Ideally in the Final Four you want a mix of the
power teams that have the national reputations like
North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, but if you
can have a Butler, George Mason or a VCU, that adds
to it,” says Sean McManus, chairman, CBS Sports. “It’s
how the story lines develop. You really don’t want
a Final Four totally devoid of traditional basketball
powerhouses from a ratings standpoint.”

Looking for a Social Slam Dunk

While in 2012 basketball fans had the option to purchase
streaming access to the tournament for $3.99, this
year Turner is evolving its TV Everywhere March Madness
Live product to an authentication-only model.

“That was not about generating revenue, it was much
more about giving people a backup if they hadn’t interacted
with TV Everywhere yet, but also protecting the
model of our distribution,” says Matt Hong, senior VP
and general manager of operations for Turner Sports,
of last year’s strategy.

This year, Turner will offer a free four-hour trial of
streaming access to games on TNT, TBS and truTV for
people who might not have their cable login credentials
(games broadcast on CBS will continue to be available
without registration). But Hong expects there are
a majority of people familiar with the process of TV
Everywhere and will take advantage of it.

“Whether it’s folks who have used the CNN app over
the course of the past 12 months or Watch ESPN or
the NBC Olympics app, I think that the number of
people who are familiar with authentication and their
credentials has just increased,” he says.

Also new to the app this year is a much closer integration
of social media: Scrolling screens are dedicated
to relevant tweets from analysts and other prominent
personalities curated by Turner Sports employees and a
Facebook integration to allow fans to post from within
the app and see what their friends are talking about.
A social buzz meter at the bottom of the screen tracks
conversation on Twitter throughout each game; clicking
on each peak reveals the play that struck a chord,
sometimes with video.

And because of the number of additional devices in the
marketplace this year that can stream video, March Madness
Live now has a universal iOS app that works across
all Apple devices and a universal Android app that works
across tablets and phones running that operating system.

“The goal is that any device of scale, that we’re optimized
for that this year,” Hong says.

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