It turns out that putting basketball games in prime time and matching up marquee programs can lead to strong ratings. Who knew?
Moving the men's Sweet 16 games from their traditional Thursday-Friday timeslot into a weekend one provided an immediate boost for the tournament's ratings. According to Sports Media Watch, six of the eight Sweet 16 games increased in both ratings and viewership over 2019; 2020's men's tournament, of course, was not played. The 2019 games were played in head-to-head weeknight doubleheaders; this year's games, by contrast, each got their own time slots.
The Alabama-UCLA thriller, for instance, drew an average of 6.51 million viewers, the most-watched game on TBS since 2015's Wisconsin-North Carolina matchup. Over on CBS, the Michigan-Florida State Sunday game drew 9.03 million, but was a clear case of good news/bad news: Viewership was down 10 percent from a comparable 2019 Duke-Virginia Tech game that featured Zion Williamson, but on the other hand, Michigan-FSU was the most-watched basketball game, including the NBA, since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals.
Overall, according to CBS and Turner releases, the combined four Sweet 16 broadcast windows averaged 12.9 million viewers, an increase of 12 percent from 2019. The prime-time windows helped boost the numbers to the highest average since 1993.
On the women's front, Monday's UConn-Baylor regional final totaled an average of 1.7 million viewers, per Sports Media Watch, the largest audience in a decade for any non-Final Four women's game. It's the highest average viewership since Notre Dame and Tennessee averaged 1.75 million in a 2011 Elite Eight matchup.
The game, which included a controversial final possession, was the 12th-highest-rated non-Final Four women's game ESPN has ever broadcast. Worth noting: UConn-Baylor aired against the men's Elite Eight, a Houston-Oregon State game, a head-to-head scheduling matchup that doesn't usually happen.
Granted, to some extent this is all an apples-to-basketballs comparison, because the game times and days differ so sharply. But on a purely numerical level, this is a reversal of a ratings slide that's affected virtually every single sport over the past year to a greater or lesser degree.
Explanations for the ratings decline range from anger at a stronger social justice presence in sports to election/COVID news elbowing sports out of the way. But the NCAA tournament numbers suggest that the off-schedule calendar played a significant role in the depressed numbers across all sports. In other words, if people were actively tuning out of sports, they would tune out no matter when the games were played. A passive tune-out — not being aware or not caring that a game's taking place off-schedule — is a different issue, one that's easier to address as we return to a pre-2020 sports calendar.
As always, the ratings themselves have no significance to the average fan outside of a talking point, but they're a bellwether for tracing the drift in interests among American sports fans. Much still to come, but if these NCAA ratings are any indication, put on good games in prime time at an expected time of year, and sports fans will tune in.
UPDATE: As expected, the move away from the weekend and to Monday and Tuesday night for the men's Elite Eight games led to steep declines. All four games suffered double-digit percentage declines from 2019, and none of the games cracked the 7 million viewer mark. That might make the NCAA hold off on changing the Sweet Sixteen/Elite Eight weekend schedule. A lack of marquee teams didn't help numbers, but fans may prefer the weekends and ends of the workweek, not the start, for their college basketball.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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