An average of 18.1 million people watched the Kansas Jayhawks’ thrilling comeback victory against the North Carolina Tar Heels on Monday, making it the most-viewed NCAA men’s basketball championship game to air on cable television, Turner Sports announced Tuesday—outpacing last year’s broadcast despite not appearing on network TV.
Viewership for the men’s title game, simulcast across Turner’s cable channels TBS, TNT and truTV, was up over 4% from last year’s Gonzaga/Baylor matchup on CBS.
Monday’s matchup was the third most-watched college basketball game in cable television history, falling behind Saturday night’s Duke/UNC Final Four matchup (which drew 18.5 million viewers) and 2015’s Wisconsin/Kentucky Final Four game (which holds the cable record with 22.6 million viewers, according to the Associated Press).
The men’s March Madness tournament averaged 10.7 million viewers overall this year, up 13% from 2021, and drew the highest audience share—or proportion of total TV viewers—since 1994, according to Turner Sports.
Under a 2016 contract with the NCAA, Turner Sports will broadcast the Final Four and championship games in even-numbered years and CBS will host the matchups in odd-numbered years through 2032.
Since that deal was signed, ratings have usually jumped when CBS—a broadcast network that typically draws higher ratings than its cable competitors—airs the championship game, but this most recent two-year span marks the first in which Turner outperformed its network television counterpart , as CBS only drew 16.9 million viewers in 2021.
What We Don’t Know
It’s unclear why Saturday’s Final Four matchup outperformed Monday’s championship game. It is possible that viewers tuned in to view what turned out to be Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game, as the 75-year-old was set to retire at the end of the season after 42 years leading the Blue Devils. Duke, one of the most prominent basketball programs in the country, also participated in the 2015 Final Four game that broke the record for most-viewed men’s college basketball game on cable.
Prior to the most recent broadcasting deal, the men’s NCAA championship had aired on CBS for decades, and viewership typically ranged between 17 million and 24 million dating back to the early 2000s, according to Sports Media Watch. Monday night’s figures pale in comparison to the all-time most-viewed college basketball game ever: The 1979 title game between Michigan State and Indiana State, which drew 35.1 million viewers to NBC. That game foreshadowed a decade-long rivalry between future Hall of Famers Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird.
Some 12.5 million viewers tuned into Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals last July—roughly a third less than its collegiate equivalent brought in Monday night. As a whole, men’s March Madness in 2022 dwarfed last year’s NBA playoffs, drawing in 10.7 million average viewers compared to just 4.3 million average 2021 NBA playoff viewers.