Networks score big with men’s basketball tournament broadcasts

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First-round action in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament provided plenty of drama and proved to be a ratings winner for CBS.

In prime time on CBS, tournament coverage averaged 4.98 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That’s up 11 percent from last year’s 4.47 million on the comparable nights.

Across all platforms, including TBS, CBS, TNT, truTV and streaming service NCAA March Madness Live, tournament coverage averaged 8.6 million viewers, according to CBS Sports, up from 8.2 million last year.

In the Indianapolis market, CBS affiliate WTTV-TV Channel 4 averaged roughly 120,000 viewers during the first round, according to preliminary data provided by ComScore.

For Indianapolis-based NCAA, the tournament is a huge boon and the group's biggest moneymaker. It helped push revenue for the NCAA's most recent fiscal year over the $1 billion mark for the first time.

That’s thanks to a $10.8 billion television deal it signed in 2010 with CBS and Turner Broadcasting System, and an $8.8 billion extension that runs through 2032. Payments will hit $782 million this year, $804 million in 2019, and $827 million in 2020.

The wildly popular men’s basketball tournament—for many fans, filling out a bracket is a spring ritual—tipped off on March 13. The event concludes on April 2 with the crowning of the champion in San Antonio. Side note: Indianapolis hosts the Final Four in 2021.

In the meantime, many of this year’s games have kept viewers on the edge of their seats, with lots of upsets and nail-biting action.

For the first time in the tournament’s history, a No. 1 seed (University of Virginia Cavaliers) was knocked off by a No. 16 seed (University of Maryland Baltimore County Retrievers). And then there was the dramatic last-second shot to lift the University of Michigan Wolverines over the University of Houston Cougars, propelling them into the Sweet Sixteen.

And let’s not forget the Purdue University Boilermakers. They knocked out Butler University in the second round, 76-73. The team will match up on Friday against the University of Texas Tech University Red Raiders, most likely without 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas, who fractured his elbow on Friday.

The No. 11 seed Loyola University-Chicago Ramblers have provided good theater, too, beating No. 6 seed University of Miami Hurricanes and No. 3 seed University of Tennessee Volunteers, with 98-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt on the sidelines.

“We’ve seen some really good teams get crushed, like Virginia, North Carolina and Auburn,” said Dan Dakich, a former Indiana University basketball player and coach who now hosts a local sports-talk show on WFNI-AM 1070. “And then you add the buzzer-beaters to it, those combination of things have made it really fun.”

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