NCAA tourney ratings dip after big first round

Following a record audience for the first round of the men’s NCAA tournament, upsets over the first two weeks have seemingly taken a toll on the ratings.

The tournament is averaging 9.11 million viewers through the regional finals, down 6% from 2022. This after the first round on March 16-17 averaged 9.2 million to set a record for the most-watched round of 64.

So after getting a dream Final Four field last year, CBS and Turner Sports have something very different this weekend with Florida Atlantic, Miami, San Diego State and UConn making it to Houston.

“The public is telling us that they would rather see the blue bloods,” said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, who now runs his own sports television consulting company. “The ratings support that. I think it’s because they’re not familiar with teams like San Diego State, Miami or FAU. There was relatively little press attention paid to those teams during the year. Connecticut has a history, but they’re the only one of the four that really has had national exposure.”

Last year’s Final Four of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova resonated even with casual fans because it was loaded with national brands while also being Mike Krzyzewski’s final tournament as the Blue Devils’ coach. And so two of last year’s Final Four contests rank among the three most-watched college basketball games in cable TV history. The semifinal matchup between North Carolina and Duke averaged 18.5 million on TBS and ranks second, while Kansas’ comeback victory over North Carolina in the title game averaged 18.1 million.

According to Sports Media Watch, which tracked Final Four ratings to 1975, the BaylorHouston game from two years ago ranks as the least-watched semifinal at 8.36 million. (Individual semifinals started being tracked in 2002.) The low for a title game on CBS is 2004, when 17.09 million watched UConn defeat Georgia Tech. The overall low was in 2018 on TBS, when 15.99 million viewed Villanova’s win over Michigan. CBS and TBS began alternating Final Fours in 2016.

Another thing that might factor into the ratings this year is that Miami and Florida Atlantic are from the same Miami/West Palm Beach television market.

There are signs that suggest the viewer drop won’t be as bad. Sunday’s regional final between Miami and Texas on CBS averaged 11.3 million, which was the most-watched basketball game since last year’s deciding game of the NBA Finals.

ESPN, meanwhile, said Tuesday that viewership of the women’s basketball tournament was up 42% over 2022. That includes an average viewership of 1.2 million for the Sweet 16 (up 73%) and 2.2 million for the Elite Eight (up 43%). Those figures include an Elite Eight record of 2.5 million watching Iowa‘s win over Louisville.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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