By Alice Bell-Black

Despite Declines and Fluctuations, March Madness Puts Up Solid Viewing Numbers in a Changing Landscape


After a the cancellation in 2020, it wasn’t clear how the 2021 championship would compare to 2019, and there were definitely ups and downs. The 31 percent increase in viewership during the First Four games gave the tournament a good head start. From there, the change in schedule dates proved the importance of weekend viewership even as people continued to work and learn from home. Both Round 1 and the Sweet 16 benefitted from increased weekend viewership across major demos, but there were double digit declines when Round Two and the Elite 8 round were pushed back to Monday and Tuesday nights.

Leading up to the Final Four and the National Championship, we saw a somewhat unusual slate of teams advancing towards the final. After defeating the lower-seeded Florida State and Creighton, Michigan and Gonzaga were the only teams from last year’s Elite 8 round that made it through to this year’s Elite 8. UCLA’s upset over Michigan was an intense match ending in a close 51- 49 win for UCLA, who joined Gonzaga, Houston, and Baylor in the Final Four.
Final Four
Both the Final Four and the Championship game were scheduled for the same weekday as 2019’s tournament, making for an easier comparison to past tournament ratings. As expected, the Final Four round saw higher viewership than the Elite 8. The UCLA vs Gonzaga game, which aired Saturday night on CBS, outperformed all other games in the 2021 tournament thus far, with a 7.56 Household rating. Newcomer team Baylor started off strong with a 25-point lead by halftime and won 78-59 against Houston, but ratings were down double digits compared to Auburn vs Virginia in 2019.
Overall, the Final Four was down 27 percent among households to 6.01 and down 19 percent among all viewers to a 3.83 rating. There was a small four percent spike among teens 12-17 and 14 percent increase among younger women 18-24, which stemmed from higher year-over-year ratings during the UCLA vs Gonzaga game.
National Championship
On Monday Night, Gonzaga and Baylor went head-to-head for the 2021 National Championship. From start to finish, the Bulldogs lagged by at least 9 points after the first 3 shots made by the Bears and were down by 10 after a quick two-point layup right before halftime. Both teams were vying for the first title for their schools, but Baylor came out on top at 86-70. The lack of notoriety from both teams resulted in 15 percent ratings decline among total viewers, and even further when looking at key adult demos. Many college-aged men 18-24 tuned out for this game, with viewership halved from 5.8 to 2.52 in ratings, while adults 25-54 saw a 19 percent decline. Overall, the championship game reached a little over 27 million people, down 24 percent from 2019. Still, a very significant number compared to typical primetime entertainment programming.
After game delays due to COVID, schedule changes, and upsets across the board, March Madness was able to deliver high ratings. In the 2020-21 season so far, the NCAA National Championship game was the third-highest rated season-ending telecast, surpassed only by the Super Bowl and the College Football Championship game. In March and April to date, eight of the top ten telecasts among Adults 18-49 are March Madness coverage, rivaled only by the Oprah Meghan and Harry interview and the Grammys. Altogether, 94 percent of the tournament was watched live, down from 96 percent in 2019, showing the importance of being in the moment with this audience.
Streaming (Roku)
Roku shared insights into the Final Four round, which confirmed viewing trends that we’ve seen throughout gameplay. The CTV company noted that linear TV viewership by household was directly correlated with seed of the team in the DMA. For example, 46.6 percent of active Roku TV Households within Spokane, home of Gonzaga, tuned into the semifinal games, while only 19.5 percent of Los Angeles tuned in since UCLA was an 11 seed.
In contrast to the decline in linear TV reach, Roku reports that “TV streaming reach has increased by 86.6 percent and hours watched has increased by 75.4 percent.” Streaming likely makes up for some of the fall-off from linear TV, as 80 percent of Roku’s streaming household audience contains someone in the 18-49 age range.
Implications for Brands and Teams
Live viewing, regardless of device, remains paramount for sports and is a great place to break news or debut creative. The overall strength of the NCAA tournament presages a return to normal for sports going forward. Roku’s insights on local market tune-in, while obvious in retrospect, highlight the impact local can have if a full national sports buy is out of budget.