Upsets Propel CBS to March Madness Victory

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Despite millions of busted brackets and losses by marquee teams; close games and compelling stories are winning over viewers, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus tells THR.

Even if you didn't have Connecticut, Kentucky or Wisconsin in your Final Four -- or if your bracket was busted within two hours of the tournament tipping off because you had Ohio State going all the way --  March Madness has still been a huge draw for fans and seasonal viewers alike. 

Despite many of the highly-touted teams being knocked out in the early rounds, the 2014 NCAA tournament has proven to be a big win for CBS, which airs the games as part of a unique collaboration with Turner. 

"Whether you watch basketball for the rest of the year or not, everyone seems to have a bracket nowadays and everywhere you go, people are talking about it," CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus tells The Hollywood Reporter.

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"It has exceeded all of our expectations in terms of the revenue generated and the perception in the marketplace, so it really has been a home run for us," he says, stealing a baseball term to describe the hottest two weeks in college sports. 

The tournament had a strong start with the opening night of the Sweet Sixteen weekend on March 27 earning a 2.5 rating among adults 18-49, marking a two-tenths improvement from last year's comparable coverage. Meanwhile last Sunday's buzzer beating victory by Kentucky over Michigan helped boost a 2.3 rating among adults 18-49 and 11.8 million viewers for the night.

While the early losses of key teams -- Ohio State, Duke, Kansas -- normally would have been of great concern, "there is so much momentum each year that we are less susceptible to losing viewer interest," he explains. Instead of having a negative impact on ratings, there has been increased interest in teams like Dayton, which no one expected to get out of the first round.  

Not having the marquee teams in the Final Four was "a problem" a few years ago, explains McManus, but now the emphasis is more on "the quality of the games and the stories than the big names."

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"What determines the ratings is how close the game is in the closing minutes, and we've been remarkably lucky with that," he explains. "Many of the important matchups have come down to the last point or two, and that really just fuels itself."

The cliche is that everyone loves an underdog, but when it comes to March Madness, it often rings true. People who had never heard of Mercer before and couldn't pick it out on a map (the university is located in Macon, Ga., for those who still can't), suddenly became invested in the team of Davids who took down the Goliath of Duke. "They may not know the name on the jersey when the tournament starts, but after a couple of games these story lines really develop."

There really is no event like it -- in the World Series or NBA Finals, if a team loses a game it has a chance for a comeback a few days later, and when was the last time the NFL playoffs featured a relative unknown team? "But with the tournament, so many great story lines develop in just a matter of two days out of nowhere," reveals McManus.

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Fortunately, while three of the Final Four (with the exception of favorites Florida) were not expected to be heading to Dallas this weekend, fortunately for CBS -- which has aired the tournament for 33 years -- Kentucky and Connecticut come with rich heritages and huge national followings, and Big Ten team Wisconsin is a big drawer in the middle of the country. 

Another reason for celebration is the chemistry between CBS and their own teammate, Turner, after embarking on a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal in 2010.

"The event has greatly evolved," explains McManus, whereas the network originally used to share the early rounds with ESPN, then tried to squash it all on CBS (basically cutting the country into four parts), they decided they needed a cable partner and Turner fit the bill.

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With joint marketing and production teams, and even sharing talent such as Charles Barkley and Greg Gumbel, "We do it in lockstep with each other and don't do what is best for CBS or best for Turner, but make decisions on what is best for the viewer and the partnership," he explains.

"It is a vastly different programming model to what it was before and there was an enormous amount of skepticism when we announced it to the general public, because you have two diverse media companies with different sales teams, but the advertisers have gotten great value and ratings, and I couldn't be happier about how its gone." 

The Final Four games air live from Arlington, TX, on CBS on Saturday, beginning with Florida vs. Connecticut at 3.09 p.m. PST and Wisconsin vs. Kentucky at 5.49 p.m. PST. The national championship game will air on Monday at 6.10 p.m. PST.