March Madness viewership is thriving despite the unusual 2021 tournament schedule. Are permanent changes in the future?

The NCAA announced Tuesday that CBS and Turner Sports delivered the best Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament viewership since 1993.

Sweet 16 games produced an average of 12.9 million viewers, a 12-percent increase from the 2019 tournament that brought in several new viewers with the allure of Duke’s Zion Williamson.

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 tournament schedule was altered to provide a larger window for teams to arrive in Indianapolis to quarantine.

First Four games were pushed back to Thursday and all four matchups were played the same day as opposed to the Tuesday and Wednesday doubleheaders in Dayton, Ohio.

UCLA and Michigan State’s First Four matchup drew 3.15 million viewers, the highest viewership for a First Four matchup ever. Overall, First Four viewership increased 35 percent from 2019.

The first weekend was played from Friday through Monday; Sweet 16 the following Saturday and Sunday, and Elite Eight on Monday and Tuesday. Traditionally, subregional and regional games have been played Thursday through Sunday.

The NCAA also explored with staggered tipoff times for the first time in the Sweet 16. Every Sweet 16 matchup over the weekend had its own window as opposed to previous years where games had overlapped in a primetime window during weekdays on Thursday and Friday.

Viewership from Elite Eight games on Monday and Tuesday will be telling. Though 2021 viewership benefitted from staggered Sweet 16 matchups over the weekend, weekday Elite Eight games tipping off at 7:15 p.m. ET and 9:57 p.m. ET with non-traditional powerhouses could lead to a sharp ratings decline.

Sports viewership numbers have generally suffered since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. March Madness’ altered schedule and consequent viewership increases could lead the NCAA to at least consider permanent scheduling changes in the future.

Header image courtesy of Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.