CBS and Turner ExpectBig Dance to Build Rhythm

Networks add more digital coverage, platforms to NCAA March Madness
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Last year's version of NCAA basketball March Madness featured thrills, chills and plenty of surprises, including Virginia Commonwealth University dancing all the way to the Final Four, Butler making a return appearance in the national championship game and Connecticut’s spirited run to the title.

CBS and Turner execs are hoping for a similar script as they embark on year two of their 14-year agreement to jointly broadcast the annual tournament. That’s especially the case given that the rookie campaign was a pure slam-dunk, with overall ratings up 7% and digital visits ballooning by 64%. “By every measure, the first year of our March Madness relationship was a huge success,” says David Levy, president, sales distribution and sports for Turner Broadcasting.

The breakdown of networks airing games this year will follow last year’s format, with 26 on CBS, 16 on TBS, 12 on TNT and 13 on truTV. The Final Four telecasts will air on CBS on March 31 and April 2.

And coverage will be expanded this year in the digital space: Turner has tweaked its digital offering, renaming it March Madness Live (a change from March Madness OnDemand). Another platform has been added, as Android users will now join iPhone, iPad and online users in being able to catch every pick-and-roll or gamewinning shot. And this year, with the exception of watching games free on CBSSports.com, the content will have to be authenticated through a cable or satellite provider or the user will have to pay a $3.99 fee.

Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, touted the companies’ flexibility in being able to combine two vastly different operations. “We were trying something that had never been done before, which was to take two very separate and in some ways competing corporations and put major parts of [them] together,” says McManus. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. We thought it was going to take a while for the viewer to get used to it.”

McManus admits to an initial concern with putting some of the games on small cable network truTV, which had never aired a live sporting event before. “I thought there was going to be some difficulty with respect to finding games on truTV,” he says. “But people who wanted to watch the game on truTV found them.”

McManus and Levy credit the announcers and production teams for their ability to guide viewers through the early parts of the tournament so that they would be able to find the games they were looking for. “We really have the best collection of talent, in front of and behind the camera, that has ever been assembled for any sporting event,” says Levy.

Viewers were satisfied with last year’s format as well. In a survey following March Madness coverage, 91% said they liked it better than previous years. “Since the beginning, [Sean and I] had one overall goal in mind: the viewers come first,” says Levy. Viewers were not the only ones pleased, as advertisers raced back to get spots for the 2012 tournament. The networks are already about 95% sold out of commercial inventory for the games, which begin March 13 with the “First Four” on truTV. The networks, whose sales teams are selling the tournament jointly, have gotten mid-single-digit price increases over last year; 30-second spots in the championship game on April 2 have sold for as much as $1.5 million.

While the networks would not discuss specific ad pricing, sources familiar with the deals say commercials in opening-round games sold this year at an average price of $90,000 per :30, while spots in the regional finals sold for between $600,000 and $700,000. “We are almost sold out,” says Jon Diament, executive VP, Turner Sports ad sales and marketing. “We’ve written a lot more dollar volume at this point than we did last year.”

Kantar Media estimated that CBS/Turner took in a record $738 million in ad revenue for last year’s tournament. Diament and John Bogusz, executive VP, sports sales and marketing at CBS, would not talk specific dollar amounts but said they will surpass last year’s take.

Two new major advertisers in the tournament telecasts this year, Allstate and Northwestern Mutual, have both agreed to multi-year deals. They will also be official NCAA tournament telecast partners. They join returning ad partners Buick, Enterprise, Infinity, LG, Lowe’s, Hershey’s, Unilever, UPS and Kraft.

Sales teams for CBS Sports and Turner Sports sold inventory for the tournament telecasts separately but cooperatively. “It was a collaborative effort [and] it worked out well,” says Bogusz.

“After working together for the first time last year, relationships were developed and everything went smoother this year,” adds Diament. “And the marketers accepted it well.”

E-mail comments to tim.baysinger@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @tim_bays
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