When it comes to live television, there is perhaps no better sign of a normal spring than a full day of games from the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament. For the broadcasters of the annual tourney, CBS and Turner Sports, its return after an unprecedented cancellation last year was a welcome one.
“We’ve never been in better financial shape. This is the best year we’ve ever had,” Turner Sports chief revenue officer Jon Diament told reporters on a conference call tied to the launch of the tournament.
Such as the unusual state of sports TV: Business is still recovering from the pandemic, but even as TV viewership remains flat or down, there appears to be pent-up demand from marketers looking for the large audiences that live sports provides.
Todd Krizelman, CEO of ad sales tracker MediaRadar, says that after pushing spend last year to streaming services, many marketers once again are sending their dollars to linear TV, with sports being the biggest beneficiary. “I do think it helped reinforce that traditional TV, at least for live sports, is very effective,” says Krizelman.
The apparent success of 2021’s NCAA March Madness follows what the NFL and its broadcast partners presented as a very successful football season. Ad firm Standard Media Index estimates that NFL advertising revenue rose 3 percent year-over-year for the past season, helped by the fact that there were more national games broadcast by TV partners (led by two additional Wild Card playoff games) and more ad spots per game than had been sold in previous seasons. In other words, even if viewership was flat or down, the networks were able to grow their ad revenue.
The marketplace also is benefiting from increased spending in some categories (Krizelman notes that home furniture and skin care saw big increases as people worked from home and took meetings on Zoom), even as some traditional marketers like automotive pared back.
“We do have some attrition, but by and large, most [advertisers] have come back, which is why we’re as tight as we are right now,” said CBS Sports head of ad sales John Bogusz, speaking to reporters at the March Madness news conference. But with the NBA and MLB seasons in full swing, sports TV isn’t out of the woods just yet. MediaRadar found that revenue in first-quarter 2021 was behind the comparable quarter in 2020, which was mostly pre-pandemic.
“This to me is the real test coming right now. Does [the second quarter] of 2021 look like 2018 and 2019?” Krizelman says. “If it does, I think we can say, ‘All right, there’s a clean bill of health that we can issue from the marketplace.’”
If not, the recovery may be a bit further down the field.
A version of this story appeared in the April 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.