I was surprised on Saturday night to find that the Final Four was airing on TBS, rather than CBS as it has for most of my life. As a cord cutter with access to a login to get me TBS, this did not prevent me from watching the Final Four. I imagine that it did for many in the cord cutting generation, especially those for whom the Final Four is not particularly important.
I suspect that this recent channel switch is driven by cable companies. They either believe that the Final Four is a big enough event that people would find a way to watch on TBS; or cable companies are trying to migrate tent-pole events to cable stations, in an effort to stem the tide of cord cutting. After all, we are already accustomed to the NCAA Championship in football being aired on ESPN, why not have a similar arrangement with basketball?
I understand the motivations of TBS and its fellow basic cable friends. They need these kinds of events to ensure they solidify a place in our lives. They seem to be throwing enough money at the NCAA to let them air one of its pinnacle events on a station that not all that many of us pay for anymore.
This is very shortsighted from the NCAA’s standpoint. While CBS/TBS is probably paying them handsomely today, they risk losing an entire generation of fans. Surely, many Villanova students asked their parents for a log in on Saturday night, but what about the casual sports fans? Young people have plenty of entertainment options today – especially on a Saturday night – and it is likely that for many casual fans and non-fans, the Final Four will stop being a part of their lives. The ratings were unsurprisingly down from the 2017 Final Four, which aired on CBS. This is despite a Final Four consisting of a remarkable cinderella story featuring Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean, two number one seeds, and one of the largest and most loyal fan bases in Michigan.
The network executives that decided to air the games on TBS are probably ok with the drop off in ratings. It likely fits their broader strategy of TBS emerging as a place for quality sporting events to live. However, the NCAA needs to make sure they are not hurting their brand. For Americans over the age of 25, the Final Four is undoubtedly must-see television. March Madness is an American holiday on par with Thanksgiving. This used to be true of the World Series, now the average baseball fan is 53 years old. That is not a lucrative advertising market, and is further compounded by a decrease in interest of children to play baseball. The NCAA has enough problems on their plate, they don’t need to further complicate matters by ostracizing younger generations by airing the Final Four on a network none of them subscribe to.