March Madness Is the New Super Bowl

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It's a near-sacrilege to mention the Super Bowl in the same breath as just about any other sports championships, but get ready for some outright blasphemy.

The Final Four is going to catch up with the Super Bowl in ad revenue, if not in outright viewership.

Last year, the NCAA men's tournament's Final Four matchups and Final brought in $198.5 million in advertising revenue for broadcast partners CBS and Turner Sports, according to Kantar Media. That's a March Madness record and a big part of the reason those broadcasters paid $10 billion for the rights to broadcast the tournament through 2024, which is a huge haul even compared with the $28 million Fox, CBS and NBC paid to air NFL games, the playoffs and rotating Super Bowls through 2022.

The NCAA's ad haul was still well shy of the $292 million last year's Super Bowl brought in for NBC -- with the gap in ad revenue between the Super Bowl and Final Four widening to $96.5 million from $50 million in 2009 -- but that single game is no longer the measuring stick. For the entire 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, CBS and Turner generated $1.15 billion in ad revenue from NCAA sponsors such as General Motors, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Capital One, Nissan and Lowes. Other heavy hitters such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and SAB Miller, which can't partner with the NCAA because of its alcohol policy, contributed nearly $60 million on their own. That $1.15 billion total is more than the $1.1 million spent on the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl combined in 2013, which makes it the second-straight year that March Madness ad money surpassed football's playoff total. That 2013 tournament take also surpasses the National Basketball Association playoffs and finals ($929 million) and Major League Baseball Playoffs and World Series ($592 million) that same year.

Still, there's no way March Madness comes close to a Super Bowl audience. The peak viewership of 27.1 million who tuned in to CBS' broadcast of the 2013 NCAA championship game was just a small fraction 167 million who caught the 2014 Super Bowl on Fox.

But that's why the NCAA tournament plays all 68 games. Each game on last year's bracket averaged 10.7 million viewers. Combined, that's a combined audience of 727.6 million -- or at least that many opportunities to put a product in front of a viewer. The NFL Wild Card, divisional playoffs, conference championships and Super Bowl averaged little less than 50.1 million viewers per game. With only 11 games, though, that's only 551 million total, or about 176.6 fewer chances for networks and sponsors to catch a viewer's attention.

It's a bit of a technicality and a reach, we know, but it's how March Madness ends up bringing in about $24 million more ad dollars than the entire NFL playoffs combined. Meanwhile, the Final Four's earning potential has grown so much in the past five years that the $198.5 million in ad revenue pulled in by last year's games is already greater than the $186.3 million the Super Bowl earned in 2008.

The Final Four already makes ad revenue in three games what baseball's World Series couldn't manage in four in 2012 ($153 million) or five in 2010 ($191.2 million). The NFL's broadcast partners can still command $4 million per Super Bowl ad, but the nearly $1.5 million that CBS fetches for the NCAA championship game is still better than what sponsors pay for ads during college football's championship ($1.14 million), baseball's All-Star Game ($550,000), the NBA Finals ($450,000) and the World Series ($450,000). Even the Oscars, which bring in a stunning $1.6 million per ad for Disney's ABC, have never topped $85 million in ad revenue.

That's made the tournament a darling among sponsors, who see it as a low point of entry with high returns. While only 34 parent companies were able to sneak ads into the 2013 Super Bowl, roughly 90 different companies advertised during March Madness that year. Even that number is down from the 125 companies that kicked in for tournament ad time in pre-recession 2007.

It also helps that the NFL doesn't break its playoffs into four major market areas in the South, East, Midwest and West. That regional approach to the tournament give advertisers such as UPS, State Farm Insurance and Buffalo Wild Wings the ability to hit audiences in key NCAA markets and not blow a lot of money getting the word out to the entire country.

Also, putting an entire tournament into an extremely confined timeframe builds fan anticipation and a television following that the pros just can't manage during more than a month of playoffs. Those are 68 teams and 68 fan bases emotionally invested in the game during each round. Combine that with a college basketball viewing audience that among 18- to 35-year-olds who've either just graduated or are finishing up payments on student loans and you have a young, ideal demographic for sponsors that doesn't diminish from year to year. It can survive a few years of blowout championship games and is willing to wait it out until a mid-major eventually wins the whole thing.

The Final Four itself still has a lot of ground to cover before it comes within a whiff of the Super Bowl's earning potential again, but March Madness' audience is already making it a bigger force than pro football. It may not have the big show-stopping finish, but on the aggregate it's the biggest game in town.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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