Every year, March Madness draws a wide range of dedicated viewers, from basketball fans and loyal alumni to people simply excited for the office bracket pool. The NCAA tournament also delivers a boost in cable viewing, depending on audience, region, and tournament stage.
With this year’s tournament starting tonight, let’s dive into cable network ratings from the three most recent March Madness tournaments and what they mean for marketers. We’re going to take a look at cable network ratings from the last three March Madness tournaments, which capture both those who watched the live games and those who watched recorded games up to seven days after the live event.
March Madness boosts national ratings
The three cable networks that carry March Madness games are TBS, TNT, and TRU. Overall, we find that March Madness games provide an average 200% increase in ratings when compared with identical days and times during a non-March Madness month. Depending on the round, some networks get better a better bump than others. We’ll look at the national household ratings for these three networks during the tournament to understand how these ratings change by round and identify where the value may be for advertisers.
In Figure 1, we see TRU gets the largest bump on average in the early rounds, First Four through the third Round, and they appear to have exclusive rights to airing the First Four round. TNT’s ratings bump is modest throughout the tournament. They get roughly a 100% increase in ratings. TRU and TNT do not air the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds, these games only show on TBS, and TBS dominates the ratings during the Final Four and Championship rounds. This is likely due to the fact that TNT and TRU air the team-casts for these rounds, which cater to the perspective of a particular team playing, and likely only to draw the viewership of people specifically interested in that team.
For this data, advertisers seeking to target March Madness might conclude that they want to evenly distribute their impression goals across all three networks in First through Third Rounds, but after that, load up on TBS to get the best bang for their buck.
A national audience
Advertisers are often interested in reaching more specific demographics than simply “households.” To get a better understanding of the March Madness audience, we’ll break down the ratings by age and gender. For convenience, we’ll organize the different age groups by generation.
- 12-17: Kids
- 18-24: Gen Z
- 25-34: Millennials
- 35-49: Gen X
- 50+ Baby Boomers
The pie charts below show the portion of cable subscribers and march madness viewers in each audience. Baby boomers make up nearly half of the cable subscriber base with Gen X having the next largest share. Cable audiences skew older, as younger viewers favor streaming and on-demand services.
In terms of of March Madness viewership, the generations are roughly proportional to their cable subscriber footprints. Baby boomers are slightly over-represented, while kids and Generation Z shrink noticeably. One might think the viewership for college-aged Generation Z would be much higher, considering roughly 70% of high school students enroll in college. One reason we don’t see Gen Z representing a bigger part of March Madness viewership could be that Generation Z prefers to watch the games with friends, such as at a bar or someone’s home, and this effect would not be counted in the ratings data.
Looking at the average March Madness ratings by generation, we see the Baby Boomers also have the most interest in watching March Madness, with Gen X coming in at a close second. There’s a difference in March Madness interest by gender, with men twice as likely to watch the games across all generations.
However, these national audience trends hide significant geographic variation among the generations and genders. Advertisers may want to exploit these patterns when deciding where they want to target geographically during March Madness games.
The maps below show enthusiasm for March Madness by geographic region. We define enthusiasm as the percent difference between local and national ratings. We highlight the top 5 most enthusiastic regions of the United States as well as the top 5 least enthusiastic regions for each of the demographics considered here.
California and Florida standout for their lack of March Madness enthusiasm. Three of the five regions with the lowest enthusiasm are in California: The San Francisco/San Jose region, Sacramento/Modesto Region, and the Los Angeles region. San Francisco takes the prize for least enthusastic region with ratings that are on average 43% below the national level. Miami/Ft. Lauderdale comes in at a close second, followed by Sacramento, Fresno, and Los Angeles, where the ratings tend to be around 20% lower than the national ratings.
On the other hand, the Kansas City region achieves over twice the national average in ratings. Louisville, Indianapolis, Cinncinatti, and Fayetteville all exceed the national ratings by around 20%.
Gen Z has low levels of enthusiasm across the country. However, for men in Gen Z, Madison, WI, and Dayton, OH, get ratings that are on average twice that of the national rating. And for women, Dayton and Cincinnati see ratings that are roughly two and half times the national average for this demographic. So if you’re trying to target college students during your March Madness ad campaign, you’ll get the most for your money around the metropolitan areas of Ohio.
New Mexico is an interesting case. Here the Gen Z women tend to be almost twice as interested in March Madness than their national average, while the men are significantly less interested than theirs. This is a reverse of the male/female pattern tend to see in March Madness ratings.
With the Millennials, we continue to see a similar pattern: Low levels of enthusiasm in California and Florida, and high levels in the Midwest and South. Kansas City, Traverse City MI, and Louisville all show significantly higher enthusiasm than the rest of the country for both males and female millennials.
For Gen X, the low levels of enthusiasm seen on the West Coast among millennials is somewhat mitigated, but California still standouts for its lack of interest. Cities we’ve seen before such as Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Dayton, and Louisville, continue to be hot spots for both male and female viewership.
Baby Boomers have the best March Madness ratings. Their enthusiasm is high and pretty evenly spread around the country. Even for the baby boomers, though, California and Florida still contain most of the regions with the least interest. Boston and New York make the list this time for least enthusiasm, but their ratings are on average only about 10% lower than the national level.
We’ve seen that March Madness offers a substantial opportunity for advertisers to amplify the exposure they get on TNT, TBS, and TRU TV each March. However, we’ve seen that the value an advertiser gets depends on the network, round of the tournament, which audience they’re reaching out to, and the geographic area of the country the advertiser wants to target. We hope the analysis we provide here may help advertisers plan more effectively now as we go into March Madness season and in seasons to come.
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