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Follow the Bouncing Ball

Early-Season Men’s College Basketball Events Elicit TV Viewership, Twitter Buzz

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Social Media
December 17, 2021
June 21, 2022
 min read

On a November Tuesday in the world’s most famous arena, the 2021-2022 men’s college basketball season began. The highly anticipated matchups pitting Kansas against Michigan State and Kentucky against Duke were appointment viewing for fans across the country. Televisions in Durham, NC, were tuned to ESPN for the commencement of Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell tour while households in Lawrence, East Lansing, and Lexington watched their latest crops of recruits with high hopes of living up to the standards set by their predecessors. But the power of the brands competing in the State Farm Champions Classic compelled college basketball enthusiasts everywhere to fix their gazes upon the action and provide initial reactions to the basketball blue bloods on social media. The State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden was the first major event of the men’s college basketball season, but it was not the only one to receive widespread attention. We compared its viewership trends and social buzz to those of the Cheez-It Hall of Fame Tip-Off, Maui Jim Maui Invitational, Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis, and Upsie NIT Season Tip-Off to gauge early-season excitement for college hoops.

Broadcast, Social Elements Substantiate Interest

This year marks the dawn of a new era in collegiate athletics, as student-athletes are now able to profit from their name, image, and likeness. Gone are the days of pure amateurism, though one could argue that line has been blurry for quite some time. So, as we usher in a new age, it is critical to understand fans’ levels of interest and investment in their favorite teams or players. The early-season spectacles are convenient litmus tests for determining such elements because they include wide ranges of teams representing colleges and universities from regions throughout the country. Well ahead of the beginning of conference play, these events showcase otherwise unlikely matchups on national television. We compiled viewership totals for all 34 games across the five events to determine how many people were watching as well as which markets had the largest audiences. Furthermore, we examined relevant team and event Twitter accounts and hashtags to learn more about the social discussions taking place and whether they correlated to TV viewership.

Perennial Powers Entice Fans for Season Tip-Off

While the players come and go – sometimes in only a year’s time – fans and alumni return every season to watch their favorite teams. And on the heels of decades of success, national brands such as Duke and Kentucky also have their fair share of haters who watch in hopes of seeing the perennial powers lose. Whatever the motivation, college basketball has a fervent fan base, and that was on display opening night during the State Farm Champions Classic. The ball was tipped on the new season at 7:00 p.m. on the East Coast with 2.82 million people watching Kansas and Michigan State play on ESPN. That total – which narrowly eclipsed the 2.66 million who watched Duke battle Kentucky in the late tilt – set the standard. The event drew 2.8x more viewers than any of the other four we observed. The second-most-watched event on average was the Cheez-It Hall of Fame Tip-Off, which took place at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. However, the figures for the four games varied dramatically. The semifinal matchups were both shown on ESPNEWS and averaged only 201K viewers per game. But Sunday’s championship between Villanova and Purdue was shown nationwide on ABC and drew an audience of 2.72 million, the second-largest in our study. Coupled with the consolation game featuring North Carolina and Tennessee on ESPN later in the day – which had 855K viewers – the event averaged 994K. The Maui Jim Maui Invitational and Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis averaged 748K and 741K fans, respectively, across 12 games, while the Upsie NIT Season Tip-Off managed an average of only 544K.

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Prime Time, Historic Brands a Fruitful Formula

Making it easy to find marquee matchups and placing them in ideal time windows is an age-old recipe for success. Such is the reason historic brands are typically placed in prime time on premier networks. ESPN exhibited the impact of such a formula with an average of 2.74 million viewers on opening night, but that wasn’t the only lineup with high viewership totals. Excluding ABC – whose only broadcast within our study was the game between Villanova and Purdue – ESPN had the most average viewers by channel, boasting 1.67 million per game over 10 games. Matchups on ESPN included the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis championship between Baylor and Michigan State that drew 1.37 million fans as well as the primetime matchup between Wisconsin and Houston that surpassed 2 million. There was a steep decline in viewership for the 10 games on ESPN2, which barely averaged 600K per game, and an even further drop for channels like ESPNEWS and ESPNU, which only had 201K and 131K averages. Regardless of network, games beginning between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. EST were the best for broadcasters. Matchups in the evening window drew an average of 1.05 million fans – 35% more than afternoon contests and 49% more than night tilts. 

Tournament Lineup Influences Market Success

Though it likely comes as little surprise, our data confirms teams participating in a given tournament have a considerable impact on viewership trends, especially for the smaller events. The home designated market areas for Villanova, Tennessee, and North Carolina were all represented in the top 10 DMAs in terms of average viewership for the Cheez-It Hall of Fame Tip-Off. Philadelphia averaged 149K viewers during the event while Raleigh-Durham and Knoxville drew 92K and 70K, respectively. A similar trend was also evident during the State Farm Champions Classic and the Upsie NIT Season Tip-Off. On opening night, 304K viewers in Kansas City tuned their televisions to ESPN to watch the Kansas Jayhawks, with Duke’s home market also staking claim to a place in the top 10. For the games at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn bookending Thanksgiving, the Roanoke-Lynchburg market that Virginia Tech calls home accounted for 171K fans to lead all DMAs. It was joined in the top five by Iowa State’s local DMA of Des Moines-Ames. Overall, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago were the most consistent DMAs, each appearing in the top 10 for all five events. New York led the way with an average of 41K viewers across the 34 games we studied.

TV Audiences Test Their Takes on Twitter

In addition to watching the action, many fans enjoy simultaneously sharing their opinions and reactions to what is happening on the court. We evaluated Twitter activity during each of the five early-season showcases to understand fans’ online engagement. For the purposes of our study, we included each team’s official accounts, the events’ accounts, and relevant hashtags from a day prior to each event until the day after their respective conclusions to assess total posts, engagements, and impressions. Our findings reveal trends across each day of the tournaments observed demonstrate a direct, positive correlation between social conversations and viewership. However, engagements and impressions show positive correlations with average daily viewership rather than total viewers, indicating a sizable proportion of visibility is derived from high-profile accounts such as ESPN and Bleacher Report, which are more likely to post content during high-viewership events. 

Season Openers Set the Stage

As was the case with viewership, the State Farm Champions Classic was more popular on social media than all others in our study. Although it was only a one-day event, it had the most social activity – 1,279 posts – and dwarfed the competition’s impression and engagement totals. The season-opening slate generated 368.9 million impressions and 123K engagements, surpassing all others by at least 3.2x and 2.2x in the respective categories. Twitter activity from the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis created 114.4 million impressions and the Maui Jim Maui Invitational elicited 57K engagements to finish second in each metric. Despite its many impressions, the Battle 4 Atlantis did not have the same appeal as some of the other events. With only 58% of the post count, the two-day Cheez-It Hall of Fame Tip-Off’s 56K engagements outnumbered the Bahamas tournament’s total by more than 2K.

Online Chatter Builds to Championship Crescendo

The accelerated timelines of early-season tournaments allow for only the diehards to follow every moment of the action. Many fans will pay casual attention to the first few games of a tournament or event, but the final day is when emotions elevate and passion abounds. In three of the four multi-day events we examined, social impressions peaked on the final day of competition. Impressions for the Maui Jim Maui Invitational increased with each successive day of competition until it reached 17.8 million on championship Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Cheez-It Hall of Fame Tip-Off received 4.1x more impressions during its final day than it did for day one, and the NIT Season Tip-Off earned a whopping 89% of its impressions on its final day. The only outlier was the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis, whose last day trailed its first by only 7%.

Local Markets Drive Social Engagement

An overwhelming trend that spanned all five events in our study was that of local markets driving social engagement. The participating teams proved to have a substantial impact on where the majority of Twitter activity originates. At a broad level, the home state of every school competing in each respective event was among the top 10 producers of event-relevant content shared on social. For the State Farm Champions Classic, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Michigan, and Kansas – representing the home states of each participating school and the host site – were the top five producers of event-specific social content. Similarly, the states representing all eight schools participating in the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis finished in its top eight and the six states representing the Maui Jim Maui Invitational’s participants surpassed all others. The Cheez-It Hall of Fame Tip-Off and Upsie NIT Season Tip-Off both saw all four represented states finish in the top five for nationwide social activity. But a deeper dive reveals this effect to be true even at the city level. On average, seven of the top 10 cities in terms of social activity related to a particular event were in close proximity to a participating school. The Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis and Maui Jim Maui Invitational each had eight local cities among the top 10 content-producing areas, led by Auburn and Houston, respectively. Lexington and Knoxville set the bar for the State Farm Champions Classic and Cheez-It Hall of Fame Tip-Off – which each had seven local cities represented in their top 10 lists – and the Upsie NIT Season Tip-Off had five in its top 10, with Memphis leading all.

Omnichannel Exposure Impacts Schools, Athletes

Early-season college basketball events are billed as fun for all involved. Fans get to watch their favorite teams play non-conference opponents in an exciting environment, teams get to travel to a thrilling destination to participate in a tournament setting, and coaches can evaluate their players’ performances to learn what they can improve. But these showcases are also business opportunities for networks, schools, and even athletes. Participating in primetime games on national television helps boost profiles and garner attention that may not be possible with a conference game on a cold winter’s Wednesday. As student-athletes are now profiting from NIL deals, playing before millions on broadcast TV and reaching exponentially more fans through social media interactions as a result can be good for business in a quickly changing college landscape.

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