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What March Madness told us about the future of sports broadcasting

SportsPro's technology editor examines why we should look at the wider trends behind March Madness, the impact of Easter on the Masters, and the role of sport in WBD's Max streaming service.

14 April 2023 Steve McCaskill

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There are several reasons to attend SportsPro OTT Summit USA, but one of the lesser documented ones is that it coincides with March Madness. This provides those of us who don’t live in North America with an opportunity to watch the action at a sociable hour – and experience the cultural phenomenon that is college basketball’s championship series.

March Madness dominates the sporting agenda for the whole month, with wall-to-wall coverage on network and cable television across CBS and WBD Sports’ cable networks. But, as is common in the current sports media landscape, it’s difficult to judge the success of the event based on ratings alone given changing consumption habits.

The opening round of matches for this year’s men’s competition was the most watched for eight years, with an average of 8.4 million viewers. However, the Final Four suffered a 17 per cent year-on-year decrease in viewers, averaging 12.34 million, while the University of Connecticut’s final win over San Diego State University achieved 14.7 million viewers on CBS – the lowest on record.

Yet it’s unlikely the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) or television executives will be too concerned at these ratings – especially since many of the major schools were absent from the final rounds. The event is being consumed differently and the revenue opportunities are still there.

March Madness almost feels like it was created for streaming. There are vast numbers of matches taking place simultaneously, the obsession with ‘bracket’ predictions means there is a natural crossover with legalised gambling and gamification features, and college basketball typically attracts a younger average viewer than other sporting events.

The March Madness Live streaming platform witnessed a 20 per cent year-on-year increase in terms of average watch time, with fans consuming an average of 122 minutes throughout the tournament, indicating a very engaged audience. Meanwhile, the March Madness Bracket Challenge, where fans predict the outcome of every game, had the most completed brackets in history, with a 29 per cent increase for the men’s tournament and a 46 per cent increase for the women’s tournament.

The women’s competition is transforming into a spectacle in its own right. The Final Four averaged 4.5 million viewers on ESPN and the championship game secured a record audience of 9.9 million on ABC. With this year being the last of ESPN’s current broadcast contract for the women’s tournament, the NCAA will be hoping for a substantial uplift in rights fee – and even greater audience numbers in 2024.

Ratings are important – especially in a US market which is so reliant on advertising. CBS and WBD Sports sold the majority of in-game ad inventory before the tournament even started, with revenue surpassing last year’s record total of US$1 billion.

But March Madness offers an indication to the rest of the industry about where sports broadcasting is going. Its relatively younger fanbase is embracing streaming, interactivity, and women’s sport ahead of other, more ‘traditional’ audiences, and it is set to reap the benefits.

Easter at Augusta

The Masters is one of my favourite sporting events of the year. Augusta National has few peers as a sporting venue, the traditions are among the most sacred in sport, and the time zone is perfect for a viewer in the UK (you can sense a theme emerging here).

Unlike the US Open or the PGA Championship, whose west coast jaunts mean a late night on a Sunday, it’s possible to enjoy the final day drama at the Masters unfold without the consequence of a zombie-like commute to the office on the Monday.

But this year, the prospect of watching the Masters was extra special. For the first time since 2012, Sunday at the Masters would take place on Easter Sunday, meaning my viewing of Sky Sports’ first-class coverage would be enhanced by the knowledge I had a full day off the following day (sometimes, content does sleep).

Anecdotally, I assumed this would also lead to improved ratings for the tournament in the UK and Europe. But it was also suggested to me that this happenstance could have the opposite effect in the US. In the name of this newsletter, I decided to conduct a very brief and unscientific survey.

In the past 25 years, the Masters has coincided with Easter on just four occasions – 2004, 2007, 2009 and 2012. Again, this is not an ideal sample size, but let’s just go with it.

Phil Mickelson’s maiden major triumph was watched by 11.82 million viewers in 2004, a slight increase from 2003, but significantly lower than the 14.63 million who tuned in for Tiger Woods’ third green jacket in 2005. Zach Johnson’s 2007 victory commanded 14.94 million viewers, up from the 12.36 million in 2006 and more than the 13.85 million who watched Trevor Immelman win in 2008.

Angel Cabrera’s playoff win in 2009 secured 14.3 million viewers, another increase, but less than the 16.68 million that watched Mickelson’s third Augusta win in 2010 – a figure which has only been bettered twice in the past quarter century.

Bubba Watson’s 2012 win might have produced one of the greatest shots in Masters history, but the audience of 13.49 million was down from the final day drama of 2011 and the 14.7 million that would watch Adam Scott win a year later.

So far, this straw-clutching exercise has proved inconclusive – a cloudy picture that has been muddied even further by this year’s ratings. Jon Rahm’s superb performance was seen by 12.06 million viewers – the most since 2018.

Maybe we can call this an Easter bump? Maybe Full Swing is having the desired impact? Or maybe golf’s civil war is producing a narrative that is too hard to ignore?

All eyes (well, mine anyway) will be on 2024…

Take it to the Max

Earlier this week, Warner Bros Discovery (WBD) finally revealed ‘Max’ as the brand for its new streaming service, due to launch on 23rd May. Max combines the assets of HBO Max and Discovery+, including prestige TV series, documentaries, movies, and children’s content, into what it believes is an affordable essential for the whole household.

Sport was a notable absentee from the presentation, perhaps confirming comments made by WBD Sports’ Luis Silberwasser at OTT Summit USA, when he said that the company’s focus is on premium properties rather than high volume rights to fill out a streaming service.

However, sport wasn’t ignored entirely.

“We’re a global leader in sports,” said WBD chief executive David Zaslav. “We’re a global leader in news and in a few months, we’ll come back to you with details of our attack plan to use this important and differentiating live content to grow our streaming business even further.”

Perhaps WBD Sports could be waiting for a marquee acquisition or a major expansion to its NBA deal? Or perhaps it just reflects that Max’s focus will be elsewhere for the time being.

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