March Sadness: Did Cable Hurt NCAA Basketball Tournament viewership?

Viewership of this year’s NCAA March Madness men’s basketball tournament has been far from a slam dunk.

Could it be the stingy defense from the cable TV industry?

It was certainly a storyline going into this year’s tournament: For the first time ever, the Final Four only aired on cable networks, leaving over-the-air TV viewers reading game recaps the next day.

The North Carolina-Syracuse national semifinal averaged 12.9 million viewers across TBS, TNT and Tru TV, according to the latest data from Nielsen. That number is down 43 percent from a year ago when Wisconsin faced Kentucky.

More notable, it was the smallest audience for the second Final Four contest since 2003, when the game still aired on CBS, according to Media Life Magazine. Numbers were low that year, the trade publication said, because of Iraq War coverage.

If viewership of the UNC-Syracuse game was bad, the Villanova-Oklahoma blowout was a catastrophe. Only 10.5 million viewers watched the Wildcats trounce the Sooners 95-51.

Overall viewership of the entire tournament, according to Nielsen, is down 12 percent from last year when it set a 21-year high.

Of course, in a world where ESPN can send us scoring updates minute-by-minute to our smartphone, there may be not be enough interest to turn on a game. It doesn’t help either when by halftime — in the case of the Villanova-Oklahoma game — the game’s already over.

And to be fair, there weren’t exactly any big storylines: No undefeated teams, and your Cinderella team, the 10-seed Syracuse, is very familiar with competing in the month of March. They’re a recognizable name that people assume could make a Final Four any year.

But is there a bigger reason for the decline? It could be the switch to cable.

After 47 years of the March Madness tournament being broadcast over-the-air, allowing viewers to watch it for free using an antenna, it moved to TBS under an agreement that will see the big dance alternate between CBS and TBS each year through 2024. Next year, it returns to CBS.

It’s no secret that more people each year are dumping their pay TV subscription, or cutting the cord, for cheaper and free options.

SNL Kagen last month released its 2015 fourth quarter results that showed more than 1 million video customers dropped their subscription in the year, marking the third annual decline for the pay TV industry.

At the same time, there were additional streaming opportunities this year, including Dish Network’s Sling TV, which added more than a half of a million subscribers in 2015.

Turner, which operates TNT, TBS and Tru TV, is banking on the tournament to be its highest-rated program of the year, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

That may be, but it seems as if it won’t even be close to past championship games that air off cable.