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College basketball ratings return to pre-pandemic levels

By Austin Karp

The college basketball regular season saw healthy viewership rebounds for national networks compared to the COVID-wracked 2020-21 season, returning to levels seen right before the pandemic.

CBS led the way with an average of 1.25 million viewers, up 5% from 1.19 million viewers last season. That was on par with the 1.29 million two seasons ago.

ESPN and ESPN2, which have the majority of college hoops games during the regular season, both saw gains in 2021-22. ESPN averaged 928,000 viewers, up 21%. ESPN2 averaged 281,000 viewers, up 22%. ESPNU saw a 6% uptick.

Fox Sports also saw gains for its networks. Fox averaged 858,000 viewers for games, up 8%, while FS1 averaged 183,000, up 13%. The Fox-controlled Big Ten Network averaged 215,000 viewers for games, up 9%.

The top games for the regular season of college hoops involved the usual suspects. Leading the way was North Carolina’s 94-81 upset of Duke in Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5, which drew 3.98 million viewers on ESPN. Next was Duke’s 84-81 win over then-No. 1 Gonzaga on Nov. 26, which drew 2.79 million. CBS had the next two spots, both featuring Kentucky: the Wildcats’ loss at Auburn on Jan. 26 (2.48 million) and their defeat at Arkansas on Feb. 22 (2.36 million). In all ESPN had five of the top 10 games, CBS had four and Fox (St. John’s win over Georgetown on Jan. 16, which came in eighth at 2.02 million) had one.

A stronger regular season also translated to some better conference tourney figures, particularly for championship games. The ACC (ESPN), Atlantic 10 (CBS), Big 12 (ESPN), Big East (Fox), Mountain West (CBS), Pac-12 (Fox) and SEC (ESPN) each saw title game gains. Fox and FS1 had its best Big East Tournament average yet, and Big Ten Network similarly had its best numbers yet for its coverage of the men’s conference tourney.

For women’s hoops, FS1’s coverage of UConn’s 30-point win over Villanova in the Big East Championship was down 7% (277,000 viewers) but still was good enough to rank as the third-best women’s college hoops game in FS1 history.

This year’s men’s Final Four will be broadcast on TBS on April 2 and the title game on April 4. The last time that network had the Final Four doubleheader, in 2018, it drew 13.4 million total viewers across TBS, TNT, TruTV and March Madness Live. The championship game in 2018 on TBS had 16.5 million viewers, the fewest on record.

The championship game for the women’s tournament will air April 3 on ESPN.

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