TBS will be involved with the Final Four two years earlier than expected. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
In a tweak to the original agreement when they partnered together on a new 14-year broadcast deal for the NCAA tournament, CBS and Turner announced Tuesday that the 2014 and 2015 national semifinals would be aired on TBS rather than CBS.
Originally, all three games of the Final Four were supposed to be shown on CBS in those two years before they moved to TBS in 2016 and alternated each year after that through 2024. Now, TBS has exercised an option in the contract to get involved with the Final Four two years earlier. As part of that process, CBS is being allowed to retain the championship game for the next two seasons, as what executives involved termed a "transition."
"We both win in this scenario," CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said during a conference call, according to the Associated Press.
TBS also will now be involved in coverage of the regional finals. Previously, CBS televised all four of them.
The reaction to the news, at least on Twitter, was predictably grumpy -- another sports institution gets moved to a cable channel, and that cable channel isn't ESPN -- but that reaction is probably misguided. As of last summer, TBS was actually available in more homes than ESPN and they have done a nice job carrying a significant tournament load (at least the game broadcasts) for three years already. It may also mean a shakeup of Final Four broadcast teams, with many preferring someone like Marv Albert or Kevin Harlan on the play-by-play call instead of the more conservative Jim Nantz.
This is just the latest piece in the well-established trend of major sports properties moving to cable. Affordability was the reason CBS partnered up with Turner on the current deal to begin with, in shades of when ABC had to give up a money-losing Monday Night Football property that was eagerly gobbled up by sister company ESPN for multiple times the cost. Cable subscription fees, which over-the-air networks don't collect, are a driving factor in who can afford these rights and why prices for them keep climbing. As long as all cable viewers, regardless of interest in sports, continue to subsidize sports watchers, this is how things are going to work. Turner, which already had a very significant stake in this arrangement (explaining the ample use of NBA analysts in studio on their coverage and TruTV being utilized), can now use these additional properties as even more leverage for subscription fee increases.
Ratings for the 2013 tournament were the strongest in over a decade. The first weekend drew an average 5.8, despite splitting games across CBS, TBS, TNT and lesser-known (and less available) TruTV. The second weekend averaged a 7.0 on CBS and TBS.
For a viewer, the experience won't really change. If you're a basketball fan (college or pro), you know where TBS is on the dial. We'll see what it means in terms of game presentation, announcers, studio hosts, etc., but when it comes down to it, you're still watching a very professional broadcast of one of sports' most esteemed events, and it will be easily accessible in over 100 million homes.