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How March Madness Changed the Way We Watch Sports

It doesn't matter that Super Bowl advertising and viewing audience vastly outnumbers the NCAA title game. It doesn't matter that the gap in ad spending between the Super Bowl and NCAA's Final Four doubled between 2009 and 2013. The Super Bowl drew only about 34 different companies as sponsors last year. March Madness brought in 90, which is still shy of its pre-recession peak of 125.

Suddenly, showing a whole championship event wasn't just a convenience, it was mandatory.

NBC learned that shortly after 2011, when NBC signed its latest Olympic broadcast deal for $4.3 billion. That agreement runs through 2020 and included $775 million for the rights to this year's Sochi Winter Olympic Games alone.

While the network lost $223 million broadcasting the last Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010, it made $88 million on the 2012 Summer Games in London thanks to limited digital and mobile ad sales and a programming strategy that ran pre-recorded events in prime time despite the fact fans could stream those events live and had the results hours earlier. This year, NBC expanded its mobile offerings to cover every event live (as opposed to just 89% of the games in 2012), expanded the breadth of coverage shown on its NBC Sports Network, USA Network, MSNBC, CNBC and other broadcast partners. It even included a Gold Zone online channel similar to the NFL's scoring-drives-only RedZone channel included in DirecTV's Sunday Ticket coverage. If a gold medal was on the line, connected fans had the opportunity to see it.

This multichannel, multiplatform approach is catnip for advertisers, but it's driving up the price of that access for networks. Back in 2005, Walt Disney and Univision paid a combined $425 million to broadcast the FIFA World Cup, soccer's biggest event, in 2010 and 2014. That's $100 million for the ABC/ESPN English-language rights and $325 for Univision's Spanish-language rights. ESPN pushed coverage onto its ESPN2 secondary channel, its ESPN3 broadband site and its Watch ESPN mobile streaming service.

Must Read: 5 Big Global Sports for Your Winter Olympics Hangover

When it came time to bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup in 2011, Fox won out with a $400 million offer that nearly beat the 2005 total for the entire U.S. market combined. Comcast-owned Telemundo, meanwhile, forked over $600 million for the Spanish-language rights that still amounts to less than half of what networks pay per event for the Olympics and NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, but nearly double the former price.

In Fox's case, it required an almost complete makeover of its sports offerings. Apart from its main network and affiliates, Fox took a sledgehammer to its sports operations last year and came out looking a whole lot like ESPN's ecosystem. Fox Sports Network was replaced with Fox Sports 1. FuelTV turned into Fox Sports 2. Fox Soccer disappeared completely, with its programming shifted over to Fox Sports 1 and 2, but the Fox Soccer Plus channel remained. Meanwhile, Fox is wresting away Major League Soccer and U.S. Men's National Team coverage from NBC Sports in 2015 with a $70 million-a-year deal it made with ESPN. NBC retains the English Premier League, but anyone looking to keep tabs on U.S. soccer will have to go through Fox and ESPN to do so.

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