LOS ANGELES -- People may love to hate Duke. But they also love to watch Duke.
Almost 24 million people watched CBS' coverage of Duke University barely beating underdog Butler for the NCAA college basketball championship Monday night. It was the biggest audience for the game since 1999, when 26.3 million people watched the University of Connecticut defeat Duke.
Even with a slightly later than usual start -- the opening tip for Monday's game was at close to 9:30 p.m. Eastern time--the matchup drew 36 percent more viewers than the 2009 match between North Carolina and Michigan State and 23 percent more than the 2008 overtime thriller that saw Kansas defeat Memphis.
Overall, some 48 million viewers tuned in to see at least some of the game.
The high numbers may have the NCAA thinking about its next TV deal. Its contract with CBS runs through the 2013 tournament. But there is a window that allows the NCAA to shop the tournament elsewhere now. If it can strike a deal that will pay better than what CBS is set to pay, the tournament could move.
But the odds seem long as CBS' $6-billion deal is structured in such a way that the payments to the NCAA grow dramatically over the next few years.
If the NCAA was serious about finding a new home, Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN would most certainly kick the tires. Less likely would be News Corp.'s Fox.
The strong ratings for this year's March Madness might also further encourage the NCAA to expand the number of teams from 64 to 96. If that happens, whoever has the rights would have to have a cable partner to carry such a load of games. CBS is already said to have had some preliminary talks with Turner Broadcasting about teaming up should the tournament get bigger.