Does Duke-North Carolina have a chance to be the most-watched Final Four game ever?
Duke and North Carolina are set to meet in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday for the first time in the history of their storied rivalry.
The magnitude of this clash — including the possibility of it being Mike Krzyzewski’s final game — is sure to create an ratings bonanza. But just how many people will watch this game, and how high could it climb on the all-time charts?
Recent history for Duke, UNC semifinals
First, let’s establish the floor. Duke has featured in a Final Four semifinal matchup 4 times since 2001. Here are the viewership numbers for those games:
- 2015: Duke vs. Michigan State | 15.307 million
- 2010: Duke vs. West Virginia | 15.823 million
- 2004: Duke vs. UConn | 16.736 million
- 2001: Duke vs. Maryland | 18.323 million
North Carolina’s viewership numbers in the Final Four are similarly impressive. Here are the viewership totals for UNC’s five trips since 2001:
- 2017: North Carolina vs. Oregon | 18.825 million
- 2016: North Carolina vs. Syracuse | 12.939 million
- 2009: North Carolina vs. Villanova | 14.454 million
- 2008: North Carolina vs. Kansas | 14.435 million
- 2005: North Carolina vs. Michigan State | 17.548 million
The slight downtrend for both schools — excluding UNC in 2017— makes sense when considering the television landscape as a whole. Virtually every television property has seen declines in traditional viewership over the last two decades.
Still, it’s fair to assume Saturday’s meeting will be highly-anticipated enough that it surpasses any recent Final Four matchups from these programs.
2015 is the gold standard
Viewership data for Final Four semifinal games only exists for 2001 and on, but we do have information on National Championship Games dating back to 1975.
When Krzyzewski first started his career and Dean Smith was still roaming the sidelines, the National Championship Game would routinely bring in 25 million+ viewers.
Those days have seemingly been gone for decades — with one notable exception. Duke’s National Championship Game against Wisconsin 2015 drew over 28 million viewers. It was the first time a March Madness game has garnered that much attention since Arizona-Kentucky in 1997.
That 2015 Final Four is the most-watched in recent history. An undefeated Kentucky team faced off against the best Wisconsin squad in program history and 22.262 million people tuned in. That’s the only semifinal game to clear 20 million viewers since at least the turn of the century.
Duke-Wisconsin in 2015 is perhaps the best comparison to what the ratings could be on Saturday night when Duke faces North Carolina. While the larger television landscape has drastically changed even since 2015, Duke-UNC is arguably the most anticipated Final Four matchup of all time.
What’s the ceiling?
In terms of absolute ceiling for viewership, you’d have to look at the 1979 National Championship Game. Over 35 million people tuned in to watch Magic Johnson’s Michigan State defeat Larry Bird’s Indiana State.
This is the second-most watched basketball game — college or pro — of all time, behind only Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals — Michael Jordan’s final game with the Chicago Bulls.
There’s one final factor to consider. Duke-North Carolina’s semifinal matchup will be broadcast on TBS instead of CBS. That could end up hurting the final number — network TV is still much more widely available than cable.
The Final Four was also on TBS in 2016 and 2018. The late-night semifinals in those years were watched by 12.939 million and 13.092 million people, respectively. Those are 2 of the 4 least-watched prime time Final Four games in recorded history.
Duke and North Carolina will tipoff shortly after the conclusion of Villanova-Kansas on Saturday night.
Note: All data in this story is via Sports Media Watch.