March Madness Viewership Varies Throughout the Tourney

Viant releases data on when and how fans were watching

Connected technologies offer a clear picture of how people watch major sports events and what that means for brands trying to reach those consumers. Deploying those technologies, ad-tech firm Viant, which specializes in creating targeted campaigns for advertisers, has revealed data indicating the variability of March Madness viewing.

Viant finds pronounced differences in how fans tune into the various rounds of the NCAA basketball competition. Working with Inscape and another partner, the company is able to monitor viewing activity in 10 million U.S. homes using technology loaded on connected televisions. The viewing data provided here is from the 2017 tournament; the companion-device data is from this year. The company notes that 2018 trends are similar but doesn’t yet have all the data analyzed.

Audience Trends During Games, Round to Round
The company’s examination starts with the early rounds, when there are many games on the schedule, often with odd starting times. Although viewership is strong from the first minute for major events like the Super Bowl, early-round March Madness games see tune-in ramp up after tipoff, doubling or even tripling by halftime. At that point, viewership largely levels off until about 90 minutes in. For the last 10 minutes, Viant notes a slight increase. As Viant CMO Jon Schulz sees it, early-round viewers are primarily interested in knowing which team wins so they know how accurate their own predictions are. They often don’t root for a team.

In March Madness early rounds, viewership can double or triple by halftime.

In the Sweet Sixteen round, the audience is larger from the start. There are fewer games and a more sizable audience per game. Although there’s a ramp-up in viewing after tipoff, it’s not as severe as in the previous rounds, but the extra tune-in for the final 10 minutes is even stronger.

During the Elite Eight, which takes place over a weekend, there’s a huge ramp-up after tipoff, as with the early-round games. Viewing flattens out in the second half. In the Final Four and Championship rounds, there’s a much higher audience from the start. The audience rises during the first half and plateaus, as in the Sweet Sixteen round. There’s only a small bump in viewing at the end of the game because fans tuned in long before.

“It seems to me that, if you’re a big fan of the game — and that’s probably who you have at tipoff — you wouldn’t miss any of it,” Schulz says. “I think it speaks to the more loyal fans of the teams playing, versus the casual fans or maybe the people that are just checking for their brackets or whatever, which drive that variability.”

Phone, Tablet Use During Games
Viant measured the use of companion devices — smartphones and tablets — during the tournament and found that their use increased as the games went on. The company is able to monitor cross-device behavior by checking for device ad requests coming from the same IP address where a connected TV is playing an NCAA tournament game. It can see that phone use increases during games but desktop use doesn’t, suggesting that people use their devices in front of the TV as they watch. Cross-device use was highest during primetime and late-evening games.

What Viant’s data can’t say is what people are doing with those second screens. Schulz believes that viewers were more likely tweeting about the action and messaging their friends during tense and exciting games but might tune out to surf or look at their email during blowouts. Although it’s a risk, he sees second-screen use as an opportunity for advertisers to serve a complementary ad.

Viant crunched the numbers for NCAA national advertisers Coca Cola, AT&T, and Nabisco to learn where they experienced the greatest brand lift during the tournament. The results aren’t easy to summarize: some brands got better results from fans who watched only the early rounds; others saw strong results at the end of the tournament.

Advertisers are now investing more of their media spending in analyzing audience behavior across broadcast and online channels, getting deeper insights that let them plan cross-platform campaigns. The winning strategy isn’t to advertise during a particular round or at a particular point of the game but, rather, to have a deep understanding of the audience and place ads on a viewer’s mobile device or computer after a TV ad has aired in that household. Doing so extends the value of the original TV buy by reinforcing the message.

“With audiences attached to a second screen even during one of the biggest sporting events of the year, marketers want to be able to target a user across multiple devices,” Schulz explains. “A holistic cross-channel strategy will increase brand lift and make sure audience targeting is optimal, no matter the device being used.”

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