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Volume 21 No. 17
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Tournament is all about teamwork for CBS-Turner

“Talent is shared, backroom is shared, production is shared,” Turner’s David Levy said.
The idea of two media giants, CBS and Turner, working together on the NCAA tournament was met with skepticism when they tried to explain their landmark NCAA partnership seven years ago. Never before had two competing networks shared ad sales, production, marketing and on-air talent on the same event. And nobody has attempted to duplicate it since.

The CBS-Turner collaboration, which started with the 2011 NCAA tournament, still stands as a unique arrangement in sports media. Now in their seventh year of working together, CBS and Turner by all accounts have taken one of the most special properties on the sports calendar — 68 teams, three weeks — and grown it in ways they never envisioned in 2011, particularly in digital and social media.

“I don’t know if there will ever be another event where talent is shared, backroom is shared, production is shared, the trucks are shared,” said Turner President David Levy. “It’s unique. I don’t know if it could be matched.”


Details from the CBS-Turner agreement with the NCAA

Original terms: 14 years, $10.8 billion from 2011 through 2024
Extension: 8 years, $8.8 billion from 2025 through 2032
Total terms: 22 years, $19.6 billion from 2011 through 2032
Rights fee in 2017: 1$761 million
Rights included: TV, digital, ancillary events, partner program

Levy and CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus identified the most obvious problem areas in the months before bids were submitted in April 2010. Executives from CBS and Turner spent 16 hours on the phone together during one memorable weekend, vetting situation after situation and thinking about what could go wrong.

Levy, who has more of a sales background, championed the idea that both sales teams could work together without developing turf wars. CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, who has more of a production background, championed the on-air look.

“We were all a little bit skeptical going into the first year that the sales groups were going to work together, the production people were going to work well together, the branding people were going to work well together,” McManus said. “But it’s been a seamless relationship. David and I decided, day one, that the decisions we made were not going to be about what’s best for CBS or Turner, but what was best for the overall product and the viewer sitting at home.”

The potential pitfalls, particularly when it came to sales, were a concern at the beginning. Network sales executives typically offer potential advertisers packages of programming. CBS might offer a package for advertisers in NFL and SEC football games; Turner may do the same with its MLB and NBA packages.

McManus and Levy decided both networks would sell the NCAA tournament and only the NCAA tournament. There would be no packaging with other events.

“There were a lot of questions through the industry that the sales sides could work together,” said Kevin O’Malley, a former TV executive who consulted with the NCAA along with Chuck Gerber, in 2010. “A lot of people just thought it wasn’t realistic. But it’s amazing how well they’ve made it work.”


Corporate champions
Capital One
Corporate partners

Buffalo Wild Wings
Northwestern Mutual
Pizza Hut

The NCAA’s partner program has flourished under the leadership of Turner’s Will Funk and CBS’s Chris Simko, growing from 10 sponsors to 18 behind the combined efforts. Those partners can spend anywhere from $10 million to $20 million per year, depending on how much advertising they build into their deals. Corporate champions, the highest level of sponsorship with AT&T, Capital One and Coca-Cola, have more expensive deals.

Turner produces all of the ancillary events around the Final Four, from the fan fest to the concert series and tailgate parties at the stadium. Having all of the programming, digital, sales and events under one umbrella has helped Turner and CBS keep March Madness profitable.

“The relationship is as strong or stronger than it’s ever been,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s executive vice president for basketball. “We recognize the unique nature of it and, frankly, we’re very proud of that.”

Once the original deal was finalized at 14 years, $10.8 billion — an extension has since taken it out to 2032 — each of the NCAA’s 11 corporate partners were given the opportunity to opt out. Only State Farm did.

Now the partner program stands at 18, with Marriott, Pizza Hut and Wendy’s coming on board this year. Burger King and Bing have exited in the past year.

Those corporate partners account for 55 percent of all the advertising on the CBS and Turner game broadcasts. The rest go to big-spending nonpartners like Geico, Verizon and Taco Bell.

CBS and Turner have 100 advertisers in all across their TV and digital platforms.

“The relationship works because it’s good at every level,” Gavitt said, starting at the top with NCAA President Mark Emmert, McManus and Levy. “They communicate regularly, often by text. When you have leaders that are that well-connected, it’s a great starting point. All the way through the organizations, a level of trust has been built.”

The significance of the deal still strikes Levy from time to time, even though they are seven years into the arrangement. It was a chance conversation during a recent doctor’s visit that underscored the impact of having March Madness on his channels, Levy said.

When the doctor found out that Levy worked for Turner, he said, “I’m going to Google where truTV is. There’s a game I want to watch.”

“That’s exactly why we have it on truTV,” Turner’s president said while retelling the story. “That’s why we do it.”