Stations Go Hard to the Hoop for March Madness

It’s Market Madness in top college basketball DMAs

The basketball bacchanal known as March Madness is underway, and CBS affiliates in especially hoops-hungry markets are hustling to make the most of rabid viewer—and advertiser—interest. Stations are using a wide array of digital options, including their multicast channels in some cases, to super-serve lucky fans of teams in the running.

The fanaticism is perhaps most pitched in the four DMAs a No. 1 seed calls home: Lexington (University of Kentucky), Syracuse (Syracuse U.), Kansas City (U. of Kansas) and Raleigh-Durham (Duke). “This year there’s peak interest because of all the success the team has had this season,” says WKYT Lexington President/General Manager Wayne Martin of the SEC champ Wildcats. “It’s absolutely huge this year.”

WKYT is one of about 20 CBS affiliates that are airing additional games on a digital channel; others include WRAL Raleigh and KCTV Kansas City. A select group got the nod from the network for the extra action on their digital tier because they met the right technical specifications, and because of abundant hoops interest in their market. Other affiliates were interested to hear how they could broadcast the extra games as well.

While the lucky stations say there’s a bit of revenue upside from the extra games on their multicast channels, they insist it’s more about offering viewers a wider array of roundball action. WKYT will focus on Lexington-area kids who are playing for teams outside the DMA, while WRAL has worked out a deal with Time Warner Cable for two hoops-only digital channels to run during the tournament—with all games in hi-def. “It’s a win-win-win,” says VP/General Manager Steve Hammel. “For viewers, for us and for Time Warner Cable.”

As the local television market continues to rebound, CBS affiliate managers say advertiser demand for local avails during the tournament, which concludes in Indianapolis on April 5, has been frenzied. Sectors such as automotive, fi nancial and fast food are looking to capitalize on the local sporting interest. While they refuse to provide specifics, general managers say those 60 and 65 audience shares for the local teams in past NCAA tournaments translate to substantial rate premiums. “It rivals the revenue we get for a 30-second spot in our top-rated late news,” Martin says.

Of course, such a windfall is not without cost. WTVH Syracuse, for one, was happy to deploy crews to nearby Buffalo to follow the home Orange, but other stations have more onerous travel plans— especially if the team progresses to the Sweet 16 and beyond. WISH Indianapolis, for example, sent crews to San Jose and Spokane to cover Indiana colleges Butler and Purdue.

But station executives say the expenses are a no-brainer in these hoops hotbeds. “The costs are tougher and tougher, but we have to be there,” says KCTV VP/General Manager Bobby Totsch. “This market lives and dies by sports, specifi cally college sports.” (Kansas, Kansas State and U. of Missouri all have sizable fan bases in the No. 32 DMA.)

CBS affiliates are making the most of the championship, as its future on their air is uncertain. CBS Corp. President/CEO Leslie Moonves acknowledged the sticky negotiations on an earnings call Feb. 18. “We have it this year and then the NCAA has an option to pick up the three remaining years in the contract,” he said. “We are talking to them about all sorts of ways of redoing the contract.”

Affiliates in these basketball epicenters hope the partnership continues. “March Madness is a great product,” says Barrington Syracuse President/CEO Chris Geiger, who oversees WTVH. “It’s a big deal—especially in a college town and a sports town.”

While CBS has grown online March Madness viewership dramatically in recent years (see “Sports Streaming’s Big Play,” p. 12), some in the affiliate group feel that only boosts interest—and TV ratings. If people are at work, goes their wisdom, they’ll watch online. If they’re off work, they’ll watch on TV. Martin calls it a nice “auxiliary promotion” for WKYT. “Anything that attracts attention to what we have on the air is more valuable to us than it is problematic,” he points out. “We believe that as soon as viewers have access to a TV, that’s where they’ll go.”

After the various Cinderella stories play out over the next few weeks, the Final Four will emerge. Stations in host Indianapolis are already gearing up for the games, as well as ancillary events like the Big Dance concert and Bracket Town fanparticipation wingding. Just two months removed from covering the Colts in the NFL championship, CBS affiliate WISH has its game face on once again.

“It’s a huge community event,” says President/General Manager Jeff White. “We want to cover this just like the Super Bowl.”