NCAA tournament ratings are tied for highest since 1991: Is it thanks to Zion?

College basketball is embroiled in a high-profile corruption scandal, and the first two days of the NCAA tournament were mostly lacking the moments that make March mad.

But that hasn’t turned viewers away.

In fact, they’re tuning in like it’s 1991.

Ratings tie mark for best since 1991

According to March Madness TV, ratings for the first round across CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV (6.1/14 metered-market HH rating/share) were tied with 2015 for the highest they’ve been since 1991.

That was the year Christian Laettner led Duke on a national title run that included stunning the Larry Johnson-led UNLV team that crushed the Blue Devils in the 1990 championship game. It was Duke’s first championship and the season that marked the program’s arrival as a true national powerhouse — put simply, peak college basketball.


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The 2019 season has certainly not produced peak college basketball. But it has produced a player who’s generated the buzz that Laettner and Johnson did in the early ‘90s, which appears to account for the increased interest in the tournament this year.

Zion Williamson appears to have created a rising tide for the entire NCAA tournament. (AP)
Zion Williamson appears to have created a rising tide for the entire NCAA tournament. (AP)

The Zion effect

Duke forward Zion Williamson has enamored not only the college basketball world, but the American sports landscape this season, as his impact at arguably the game’s highest-profile program has somehow exceeded the lofty expectations he arrived with.

His busted shoe and late-season knee injury against North Carolina only raised his profile and amped up the spotlight when he returned six games later at the ACC Tournament.

So it’s no surprise that his NCAA tournament debut was a TV event. Part of the spike in overall ratings includes a Friday primetime number (7.7/15 metered-market HH rating/share) that exceeded 2015 as the highest in that time slot since 1991.

That slot included Williamson dunking his way to 25 points as Duke cruised past North Dakota State.

Of course, one game out of 32 does not an opening-round ratings win make. But Williamson appears to have led to a rising tide for all NCAA tournament ships. If you tuned in to watch Duke in the early evening Friday slot, there’s a decent chance you stuck around to watch North Carolina beat Iona.

And once you’re settled in, you might as well see the evening’s games to the finish.

What about Thursday’s games?

There’s no way to empirically evaluate it, but it makes sense that a constant media onslaught of Zion stories has put the NCAA tournament on the map for casual fans who decided to tune in Thursday.

And let’s not forget that legal sports gambling is starting to make its way to states that aren’t Nevada. The NCAA will never admit it, but that can translate to a boon for interest in college basketball.

Regardless, the ratings numbers are a win for an NCAA that’s made its biggest headlines for controversy in recent months.

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