Open NCAA Field Puts RatingsExpectations 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 brands.”

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.

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito