Selection Sunday, when the teams playing in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are announced, returns to its usual CBS timeslot this weekend.
A year ago, the sudden cancellation of the tournament left a yawning void in the sports and cultural calendar. The demise of March Madness in 2020 ranks as one of the most jarring moments of the coronavirus pandemic. Along with the NBA’s abrupt season postponement and Tom Hanks’ positive Covid-19 test, it instantly signaled how drastically the world had changed over the span of a single day.
In that way, some order will be restored to the sports media universe when the tournament tips off on Thursday. With legalized betting having taken leaps forward in the two years since the last national tournament, this year should see wagering explode. Emerging companies like DraftKings, FanDuel, FuboTV and others are hoping to reap benefits if the tournament becomes the latest milepost on the nation’s road to recovery. Yet, for the NCAA, the 68 teams, TV networks and a host of others, there are also countless complexities to the effort.
Chief among the causes of angst, of course, is safety. While infection rates are declining nationally as vaccinations increase, news of Covid-19 cases on top-rated teams Kansas and Virginia cast a shadow over the Big Dance last week. Both had to abandon their conference tournaments, which lead up to the main one. Duke, an annual mainstay having an uneven season and far from a shoo-in for selection, decided to voluntarily opt out after an incidence of Covid. It’s the first time since 1995 the Blue Devils won’t be in the mix in March.
There are no whispers of a potential repeat of 2020, however, and both CBS Sports and WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports have developed proficiency in televising sports during times of Covid. They are marking their 10th annual collaboration on game telecasts, another advantage given the circumstances. Advertisers have flocked to the fortnight, with CBS Sports chief Sean McManus saying inventory was nearing a sellout last week. Even the hour-long Selection Sunday show, a lead-in to 60 Minutes and the Grammys, is considered a desirable slot for marketers.
The chaotic, start-and-stop college basketball season foiled many top teams, but the optimistic view is that there’s more room for surprises like Loyola University of Chicago’s run to the Final Four in 2018. “The tournament is going to look and feel different,” McManus acknowledged. “But the same storylines that always seem to emerge, whether it’s Cinderellas or upsets or individual performances, are what make the tournament special.”
All games will be contested in Indiana, most in Indianapolis, with limits on arena crowd sizes and gatherings both indoors and outside. Don’t expect the usual shots during time-outs of overflowing student sections, with pep band instruments waving and painted faces packed cheek to cheek.
McManus, during a press call with WarnerMedia’s Jeff Zucker last week, said he is undaunted by soft ratings for college basketball. Most sports, even the NFL, have seen downturns during the pandemic for a range of reasons. “I’m not hanging my head or worrying that ratings may be down,” he said. “I think if we get a good tournament, I think the ratings will be fine and the advertisers will be satisfied.”
In 2019, March Madness advertising brought in $910 million and networks are reportedly on a pace to eclipse that mark. The alternating schedule has CBS airing the Final Four on April 3 and the national title game on April 5.
The earlier rounds are known for a dense schedule of games. Unlike other strategic decisions during the pandemic, when remote technology and safety limitations have forced a reduction in staffing, McManus said the total number of crews will increase, from eight to 10.
Zucker said the biggest strain on staffers will be finding a way to pull off a TV spectacle that feels familiar, though viewers know the country remains on a footing that is anything but. “Obviously, because of the health and safety precautions that we have to take, and that are necessary, that adds challenges for us,” he said. “Those technical challenges are really the big ones this year.”
McManus said CBS has been on the front lines of figuring out pandemic sports, returning to the airwaves with pro golf last June and then weaving its way through an uneven fall of college football and the NFL.
“Each in its own way was complex,” he said. But March Madness is something else. “Because of the volume of games going on, because of the nine different sites, it’s going to be very, very complex. … There’s nothing we’ve done since the pandemic began that’s been as complicated.”
Streaming of all tournament games on mobile devices, tablets and laptops will be hosted by the NCAA’s March Madness Live app. The newly rebranded ViacomCBS platform Paramount+ is also streaming all 24 CBS broadcasts. While WarnerMedia is pushing hard to promote HBO Max, its general entertainment streaming service, it’s not yet programming sports. (CEO Jason Kilar confirmed on Friday that sports will not stream there in 2021.) Turner linear networks TBS, TNT and truTV will share 43 tournament games among them.