NCAA March Madness: Making Basketball Profitable

NCAA March Madness is a spectacle. It’s exciting, dramatic, heartbreaking, and exhilarating. It draws viewers from across the country from every background, all cheering for their local favorite. Amid all the drama though we tend to forget just how much money is involved in collegiate sports.

Think about it; people pay for subscriptions to watch the games, billions of dollars get wagered on the outcomes, and bars and restaurants around the country have big windfalls as fans crowd in. Beyond that, there are advertising dollars for the commercials, gear and memorabilia sales, and even the hotels and airlines benefit from travel to the games. Putting it simply, college sports are a massive industry.

Even though the players in college sports aren’t getting paid, almost everyone else is, which means there are opportunities for investment. While the opportunities are many, there are three areas in particular worth considering. The first, advertising and commercialization. Second, subscriptions and delivery of the content. Third, the wagering and gambling associated with modern sports deserves a look as well.

Advertising and Content:

Advertising as an industry has been changing dramatically over the past several years. Increasing internet usage, declining cable numbers, and a shift away from print media has had the industry reeling. Covid-19 took all of that one step further, bringing even more people online and reducing traffic to some of the other more traditional advertising paths like billboards.

With the big shift, there are a few obvious winners like search engines and social media platforms. Another potential winner is live TV. The TV advertising industry has been under pressure as more people cut the cord and drop their cable subscriptions.

However, the biggest events still draw a lot of viewers – and if there are fewer things people want to watch live, the ones that are in demand are more valuable. That’s why the big media companies that own the rights to broadcasting a lot of college sports are willing to pay so much for them. Again, look at March Madness.

has continually reupped their contracts to broadcast March Madness since the 80’s, and most recently committed to pay $8.8 billion for the rights to the tournament for another 8 years through 2032. That’s more than a billion dollars a year for the rights to broadcast a basketball tournament!

Accessing Content:

Cable subscriptions are on the decline – nobody wants to watch a movie on TV when they could watch it uninterrupted on a streaming service like Netflix
, Disney
, etc. Live sports though remain a staple of the cable subscription with stand alone streaming options available.

This creates a dilemma for casual sports viewers; they often can’t justify the cost a cable subscription just to watch a few live games here and there, but they don’t need cable to watch all the shows they want to watch. These price sensitive customers put broadcasting companies in a tricky spot – they have to walk a tightrope between offering slim digital subscriptions to appeal to the cord cutters, while not making it too easy for existing lucrative cable customers to walk away.

Two companies in particular stand out for their different strategies in the space, Disney and Viacom CBS. Once a cable behemoth that refused to offer any sort of over the top items for its content, Disney has continued to adopt a cautious approach to providing digital experiences. While Disney Plus has been a huge success, having gathered more than 100 million subscribers in less than a year and a half, the company has been much more cautious with its sports assets. Some limited services are available through ESPN Plus, but most of the content from crown jewel ESPN remains accessible only through a more expensive cable bundle or through expensive on demand purchases. In short, they are protecting their cable assets with sports.

Viacom CBS on the other hand has gone all out to try to capitalize on the digital wave. CBS All Access, now being rebranded as Paramount Plus, offers all its sports content through subscription to the app – no cable subscription required. Put another way, Viacom CBS is backing itself to have exclusive content that can stand on its own – if all you wanted was their content, you can drop your cable subscription completely.

Engaging The Fan Base:

While access and content delivery are certainly seeing innovation, the change in the engagement side of sports is happening far faster. From fantasy sports to social engagement to gambling, engagement around sports is a multibillion dollar opportunity.

It all started with Fantasy Football a few years ago – the NFL needed a way to get fans engaged beyond the one or two teams anyone might support. Fantasy Football gave people a reason to be interested and engaged in the outcomes of all the games. Meanwhile, the NBA took a different route and started trying to make its players more personable and more engaged with their fan bases – athletes went from being cogs on teams to being individual brands and social influencers.

Fast forward a few years and today the investment opportunity in fan engagement is via online gambling. Forget about just competing in fantasy football with your friends – in many states you now can put a wager on an outcome or even just a particular facet of a game. Think the Lakers will lose, but LeBron James will score more than 30? There’s a place to make a bet on that. Companies like Penn National Gaming
, or Draft Kings Inc, have burst onto the scene to offer easy digital interfaces and easy access to gambling wherever it’s been legalized.

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