The NCAA has announced a new, $10.8 billion 14-year deal with CBS and Turner for rights to March Madness (the Division I basketball championship), extending from 2011 through 2024.
In a first, games will be shown live across four networks, CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV.
First and second-round games will be on all four nets, with CBS and Turner divvying up regional semifinal coverage and CBS getting regional finals and the Final Four, including the championship through 2015.
But the big news is that starting in 2016, CBS and Turner will split the regional finals coverage, with the Final Four and the national championship alternating between the two. That means Final Four will be on cable every other year starting in 2016.
In addition to the TV rights deal, the NCAA is also prepared to expand the tournament to 68 teams beginning next year. The Division I Men's Basketball Committee unanimously passed the proposal. It will be reviewed by the board of directors April 29.
CBS Sports President Sean McManus said his network began discussions with Turner last October about offering the NCAA a joint bid. On a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, McManus rebuked the notion that Turner was "bailing out" his network.
"We were prepared to do the last three years of the current deal," he said. "It's no secret that those last years were going to be very challenging based on the rights fees." CBS reached an 11-year $6 billion contract with the NCAA in 1999 to carry the tournament, with the NCAA receiving an opt-out this year. The deal was backloaded, with CBS on the hook to pay $2.131 billion over the next three years.
"It works out much, much better than if we had the last three years of the deal," McManus said of the new agreement. "I think the economics of this deal work for both parties very, very well."
Plans for coordinating production between the two partners are still in the works, but Turner Sports President David Levy said he expected production to be a joint undertaking.
"We expect the look and feel of this programming to be consistent across CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV," he said. Levy said both Turner and CBS recognize the importance of giving tournament fans a multiple platform experience and expected that games would still stream live online next year.
McManus disagreed with the assertion that an event like the NCAA tournament had "outgrown" being solely a broadcast property, saying the way viewers were consuming media had changed, with fans demanding that each tournament game be nationally televised. "I think the system we had in place worked well for 29 years," he said. "To compete in that marketplace [for the tournament], we needed a cable partner." He opined that broadcast networks could still maintain sole distributorship of a marquee sporting event.
Levy sounded the drumbeat for cable, saying "we believe that the television world has changed. We believe you'll continue to see a migration" of sports content to cable. He said he didn't expect any pushback from Washington surrounding the move of another marquee sporting event to cable.
Jim Isch, interim president of the NCAA, said securing a deal for the association that allowed for airing all games on a national platform was vital.
"It was a goal from the very, very beginning and I believe it's what our memberships want. They think it's important for their teams to be seen across the country," he said. "It was one of the driving factors in our decision."
Martin Franks, EVP, planning, policy, and government relations, for CBS, says he things the deal will be well received inside the Beltway.
"Under the new deal, there will be no fewer games on broadcast for the next five years, than have been for, say, the last five years," says Martin Franks, EVP, planning, policy and government relations, for CBS. "And, in fact, more viewers will get to see more games nationally than was possible in the last five years. So, we actually anticipate that this new arrangement will be very well received in Washington, and elsewhere."
NCAA Senior VP of Basketball and Business Strategies Greg Shaheen said the TV rights deal was not contingent upon the NCAA approving the expansion to 68 teams. He and Isch said no timelines were attached to tourney adjustments and neither ruled out a possible expansion to 96 teams in the future.
Isch said the board would likely approve the committee's recommendation, saying 68 teams was "probably where we will be for now," but added "everything is still on the table."