Interest in March Madness Is Trending in the Wrong Direction

29% of U.S. adults said they expect to watch at least some of this year’s NCAA men's basketball tournament, down slightly from 2021
March 17, 2022 at 12:01 am UTC

After the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was canceled in 2020 and played in a bubble with limited spectators in 2021, March Madness returns to its traditional format this year with games scheduled across the country. Still, there’s no sign that interest in the 2022 tournament, which begins this week, is any greater than last year. In fact, Morning Consult research indicates it has declined steadily over the past five years.

Public Interest in March Madness Has Declined in Recent Years

Share of U.S. adults who said they plan to do each of the following during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament:
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Data for 2019 is unavailable. The 2020 survey was conducted prior to the NCAA’s cancellation of that year’s men’s basketball tournament due to COVID-19.
Surveys were conducted each March, among representative samples of approximately 2,200 U.S. adults each, with margins of error of +/- 2 percentage points.

What the numbers say

  • Twenty-nine percent of U.S. adults said they plan to watch at least some of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, down slightly from the 31 percent of adults who said they planned to watch in 2021, when the entire tournament was played in a bubble environment in the state of Indiana.
  • While minimal, the dip continues a yearslong downward trend. According to Morning Consult research, the share of adults who said they intend to watch some of March Madness has declined from 43 percent in 2017 to 29 percent this year. The trend is even more pronounced among adults under the age of 45, among whom viewership intent has fallen from 48 percent in 2017 to 27 percent in 2022.
  • The share of Americans who said they plan to fill out one or more March Madness brackets also declined slightly from 18 percent in 2021 to 15 percent this year. Among respondents who said they expect to fill out a bracket online, ESPN.com was the most popular service, with 46 percent saying they plan to use it. CBS Sports (16 percent) and Yahoo Sports (11 percent) round out the three most popular bracket services.
  • Games during last year’s men’s tournament reportedly averaged 3.82 million viewers across CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV, a 13 percent decline from the 2019 edition. Viewership for the championship game between Baylor and Gonzaga on CBS was down 14 percent from Virginia-Texas Tech in 2019, and the 16.92 million viewers who tuned in was the lowest ever for a title game airing on a broadcast network.
  • Respondents were asked whether they had heard of 20 prominent men’s college basketball players. Of them, only LSU’s Shareef O’Neal — son of one of basketball’s biggest personalities, Shaquille O’Neal — was known by more than 30 percent of adults (36 percent) or 40 percent of sports fans (46 percent).

The impact

Despite the 13 percent viewership decline from 2019, last year’s championship audience was considered strong by many given the even larger audience declines other major sports properties had experienced amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, it was the most-watched non-football sporting event since Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, and it was only surpassed last year by a few nights of the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Given that interest heading into this year’s tournament is statistically similar to last year, there’s reason to believe viewership for games played prior to the Final Four (which this year airs on Turner Sports’ cable networks instead of the CBS broadcast network) could see audience gains if the bracket breaks right. Last year’s tournament likely suffered from a lack of deep runs by traditional “blue blood” programs, such as Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky.  A deep run for Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season would likely be the best outcome this year from a ratings perspective.

The broader trend of the past five years, however, suggests that interest in college basketball is waning. Unlike the NBA, the popularity of which is driven by stars whose personas evolve over years, most top college players play only one season before declaring for the NBA draft and, therefore, there are few familiar faces to draw in viewers. The proliferation of name, image and likeness opportunities could help provide exposure for top college athletes, who will be more inclined to build their brands on social media and through other off-the-court endeavors.

The March 11-14 survey was conducted among a representative sample of 2,210 U.S. adults, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. Surveys for subsequent years were conducted each March, among representative samples of approximately 2,200 U.S. adults each, with margins of error of plus or minus 2 points.

A headshot photograph of Alex Silverman
Alex Silverman
Senior Reporter

Alex Silverman previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering the business of sports.

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