There are some things about the NCAA tournament that never change. Fans always can count on first-round upsets, buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas playing into the second week. There are office pools and workers playing hooky.
And then there's CBS.
Since 1982, the network has televised at least some portion of the tournament, essentially showing the event in its entirety since 1991. Its current contract with the NCAA runs through 2013, making the tournament one of just a handful of sporting events to have had the same broadcast home for more than two decades.
"The fan who watches us now views us as an integrated whole," said Mike Aresco, senior vice president of programming for CBS Sports. "It's got a fabric, and as Winston Churchill might say, 'It has a theme.' This has a theme, and people really enjoy that story line. And I think the NCAA has agreed with us over the years."
Indeed, CBS and the NCAA tournament are very much interconnected, with the network repeatedly signing long, lucrative deals to keep the television rights to the three-week event. The current deal, which began in 2003, stretches for 11 years and is valued at $6 billion - about $545 million annually. The NCAA could opt out of the deal after 2010, but there is no indication it plans to do so.
"We've managed to hold on to most of our properties for real long," CBS Sports president Sean McManus said. "With a brief interlude with the NFL, that's managed to go on for decades, the PGA Tour, the PGA Championships, SEC football... we're in the business of long-term relationships, and we've done good deals for ourselves for ourselves and our partners. We're so intertwined that it would be very disconcerting for another network to broadcast the tournament."
There are rumblings, however, that CBS could face stiff competition when it seeks to renew its deal with the NCAA after 2013. Network officials said they have had no formal talks about an extension but expect to sit down with the NCAA within the next year. Sources in the sports broadcast industry said the network likely will need to prepare itself for competition from ESPN, which also has shown a willingness to bid aggressively for major sports properties.
In November, the cable network outbid Fox for future rights to college football's Bowl Championship Series, which includes four major bowl games and a title game. Industry experts said the BCS deal demonstrated ESPN's financial edge because, as a cable network, it receives carriage fees as well as advertising.
ESPN officials declined to comment on whether it would pursue rights for the NCAA tournament.
"ESPN gives such a great look because of the multidimension of their platform," said John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a sports marketing agency in Chicago. "Clearly, with the streamlining of the ESPN brand and their ability to do things is a massive, massive portal that CBS straight up as a network doesn't have to fund some of the financial models of these guarantees."
But Rowady pointed out that CBS typically has dominated sports television in both March and April because the tournament precedes the network's coverage of golf's Masters tournament. It is a combination CBS would be loath to lose.
"It's one of the cornerstones of their business, and it's what they're about," Rowady said. "So I think they're going to be a very tough incumbent to beat."
Aresco said CBS is confident it will be able to stand up to any competing bids for the tournament, including ESPN's.
"I don't want to sound the least bit arrogant, but I do think there is a place for broadcast with an event of this magnitude and this duration," he said. "Remember, the BCS is four games. And the rights fee, while it's healthy, it's not like the rights fee for the tournament. And our guys can sell it far better than any other cable entity can sell it."