Written by: Dan Gladman

Follow: @dgontheroad

As the calendar switches from February to March, and spring draws nearer, it’s not simply basketball fans that utter the words March Madness. The indoctrinated nickname of the actual National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament has become synonymous with an unpredictable sporting event featuring 68 teams comprised of teenagers and 20-year old men and women.

You don’t have to follow basketball during the year to participate, you barely even need to know the colleges and universities represented.

You just need some cash to gamble, and at this time of year, it seems, everyone does.

According to the American Gaming Association, 56.3 million Americans filled out tournament brackets in 2023. Roughly 31 million adults bet on a game online or through more traditional channels.

An estimated USD $15.5 billion was expected to be wagered on last year’s tournament. This year’s event starts March 19 and culminates with the championship game on April 8 in Glendale, Arizona.

But while the student-athletes themselves will not make any direct income from March Madness, the NCAA certainly will. According to the Associated Press, “the NCAA generated nearly $1.28 billion in revenue for the 2022-23 fiscal year.” This was an increase from $1.14 billion the previous year.

Interestingly, the NCAA doesn’t have rights to football Bowl games or the College Football Playoff National Championship, massively lucrative events of their own which see the money go directly to the conferences and schools involved.

The bulk of the NCAA’s yearly revenue comes from the tournament. Their take in 2023? A cool $900 million, or almost 69% of its annual sum. All in three weeks.

Like the professional sports ahead of it, especially the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, the biggest chunk of revenue for March Madness comes from media rights. Investopedia reports that the NCAA signed a 14-year deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting (now owned by Warner Bros. Discovery) in 2010 for USD $10.8 billion. That deal was extended in 2016 for $8.8 billion more keeping the tournament on those channels through 2032.

According to Investopedia, “The NCAA maintains that about 90% of the money it collects immediately flows out to the member schools.”

This has allowed the country’s top college basketball teams to flourish financially. The leader in revenue generating is Duke University, based in Durham, North Carolina. Gobankingrates.com states the university made USD $45,108,538 off its men’s basketball team in 2022. Duke won the NCAA Tournament five times between 1991 and 2015, but note the last championship was nine years ago. The program is still commonly the first-thought-of school in any conversation centred on college hoops, March Madness or the event’s marquee weekend – the Final Four.

Other top schools at the top of revenue generation – and perennial favourites to win the tournament – include Syracuse, North Carolina, Connecticut and Indiana.

With TV sets across North America flooded with March Madness it’s no surprise that advertisers fall over one another to traffic their corporate messages. Sportico reports that CBS and WBD should bring in more than $1 billion in revenue for commercials and in-game initiatives. That makes up for the stratospheric rights fee and production costs. According to Yahoo Finance, the 2022 tournament averaged over 10.7 million viewers over its 67 game broadcasts, making advertising well worth it to “Corporate Champions” like Capital One, Coca-Cola and AT&T. Sportico reports they are the top three of 17 “premium” March Madness advertisers.

If there is an emerging factor worth paying attention to during this March Madness, it’s the women’s game. First played in 1982, the women’s tournament has languished financially behind the men’s event, but its growth is now tangible. Fans are coming from every corner as a new generation of superstars like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese rise to the forefront. They will both almost assuredly turn pro after this year’s tournament, making it an event possibly for the ages.

ESPN and the NCAA recently settled on a massive championship broadcast package keeping the women’s basketball tournament in a bundle of NCAA championships. But according to Rookie Road, the value to ESPN of the women’s NCAA Tournament is about $65 million per year. Yahoo Sports reported that in the previous TV deal (expiring this year), the tournament was worth $6M-$7M.

The 2023 women’s title game between LSU and Iowa was broadcast on ABC for the first time and drew a record 9.9 million viewers in the USA.

The dollar figures speak for themselves. March Madness means exorbitant amounts of money. There seems to be no ceiling for an event that grew organically from the first Final Four played in Evanston, Illinois in 1939. The NCAA, TV networks and advertisers see instant revenue. The young players don’t profit but can turn heroic performances into professional careers.

And for the rest of the population, North American and worldwide – 100 million people in 180 countries according to Medium in 2019 – the tournament will demand eyeballs, a great deal of it fuelled by the mad amounts of money at stake in office pools, brackets, and bets.