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NCAA’s March Madness is preparing for its return to normal, with some twists

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A general view of the March Madness logo before game between the Syracuse Orange and the Houston Cougars in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Aaron Doster | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters

After two rocky, pandemic-disrupted years, the March Madness we all know so well is coming back.

The 2022 men’s NCAA Tournament starts Thursday on CBS Sports and Turner Sports. Disney properties ABC and ESPN will air the women’s NCAA tournament starting Friday.

Executives from Paramount Global and WarnerMedia spoke on Tuesday to promote March Madness, which promises to pay out nearly $1 billion in advertising revenue on the men’s side.

“The country is ready for the [NCAA] tournament,” said CBS Sports President Sean McManus.

“We’re getting back to being normal,” added Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels. “And we want to take that and go a step further.”

The networks lost the 2020 NCAA tournament due to Covid. The 2021 event was held in a bubble and saw the Baylor Bears win their first NCAA men’s basketball championship.

But this year’s tournament will include the return of storied programs Duke and Kentucky – both missed last year’s tournament – and legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski chasing his final title with the Blue Devils.

Can the men’s tournament lure 20 million viewers?

The production of this year’s NCAA tournament isn’t changing too much. Games will again feature a virtual shot clock on the court. There will be in-game coach’s interviews, and Final Four games will see rail and sky cameras integrated into broadcasts.

But will more viewers watch than they did last year?

The 2021 NCAA championship game between undefeated Gonzaga and Baylor attracted an average of 16.9 million viewers for CBS Sports, a 14% decline from the 2019 game. It was also the least-watched championship aired on CBS since the network started broadcasting the games in 1982.

The 2021 men’s Final Four games drew an average of 14.9 million viewers.

The NCAA men’s tournament returns to Turner Sports this year for the first time since 2018, when Villanova beat the University of Michigan. That title game drew roughly 16.5 million viewers.

CBS and Turner have rotated the Final Four since 2016. The last time the NCAA men’s championship game topped 20 million came in 2017 when the University of North Carolina played Gonzaga. That game attracted approximately 22 million viewers.

On Tuesday’s call, McManus wouldn’t predict viewership around the 2022 tournament but added “good games, good storylines, and as we know when a Cinderella pops up, that’s good for ratings.”

He also noted more prominent programs returning to the tournament should help viewership. In addition, measurement company Nielsen will combine out-of-home viewership with the final metrics. Out-of-home TVs are counted in places like airports, restaurants and sports bars. Nielsen previously provided only at-home metrics for its linear TV reports.

McManus said Nielsen’s decision to combine the metrics is “good for the network and good for our sponsors, and it truly does provide an accurate count of how many people are consuming our content.”

On the women’s front, Disney hopes to top last year’s title game between Arizona and Stanford. The contest attracted an average of 4 million viewers and was the most-watched women’s contest since 2014.

The women’s 2021 semifinal games featuring Stanford and South Carolina drew an average of 1.6 million viewers, while the University of Connecticut’s loss to Arizona had 2.6 million viewers, up 24% from the 2019 second semifinal contest. Sweet 16 games aired on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 918,000 viewers, which is up 67% from 2019.

A detailed view of the March Madness logo at center court as Gonzaga Bulldogs and Norfolk State Spartans players run by during the second half in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Kirby Lee | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters

March Madness ads are sold out

Ad inventory around the 2022 men’s tournament is sold out, said John Bogusz, an executive vice president at CBS Network’s sales division. Thirty-second spots for the tournament run from hundreds of thousands of dollars in the earlier rounds to more than $2 million for the NCAA title game.

Bogusz said automotive, insurance and fast-food categories are “very active and very strong this year.” Movie studios are also returning to the ad rotation, while travel and technology companies will also promote around the games.

TV ad measurement company iSpot estimates ad spend around the 2021 men’s basketball tournament was about $1.05 billion, that’s up 21.4% when compared with the 2019 tournament. The firm told CNBC that AT&T was the top spender at $74.7 million for ads around the 2021 tournament. Capital One spent $48.7 million for ads, Geico ($46.7 million), Buick ($39.5 million) and Progressive ($37.7 million).

Told of the estimates and asked if ad spend around the 2022 men’s tournament would top $1 billion, Bogusz didn’t reveal specifics but added the projection is “in the range.”

“It’s quite impressive,” said Jon Diament, Turner Sports’ chief revenue officer, referring to the ad spend. Diament noted the amount of time the networks have to air the games – “three weeks of activity … it’s quite outstanding that we can gobble that money up in just a three-week flight.”

Last September, the NCAA said the 2022 NCAA women’s tournament would be included in the March Madness brand. The decision came after growing pressure and criticism over the organization’s original stance on using the trademark just for the men’s tournament.

EPSN said it also sold out its inventory for the women’s tournament. Twenty-two advertisers including Apple, General Motors, Target and T-Mobile will run ads during games.

The sports programming ad marketplace remains a top buy for advertisers. The National Football League’s Super Bowl remains the most expensive inventory. CNBC parent company NBCUniversal charged roughly $6.5 million for Super Bowl 56 commercials, and some brands paid a record-high $7 million for a 30-second ad.

Still, the high prices around sports programming aren’t deterring companies. Bogusz said “advertisers across all demo groups are allocating additional dollars” to purchase inventory.

“It provides the best drama in all of television, and to many advertisers, it’s still the most attractive programming you can possibly have,” said McManus. “And that includes the NCAA tournament.”

Asked whether the NCAA men’s tournament would increase to $3 million per 30 seconds when CBS returns to the event in 2023, Bogusz responded: “I wouldn’t say it would be that high. But we anticipate increasing pricing as we continue to move forward.”

Demonstrators protest against the war in Ukraine in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

War contingency plans 

While networks are welcoming a return to normal for March Madness, there are contingency plans in place for updating the top news of the moment – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“There are more important things happening in the world right now than the NCAA tournament,” McManus said. “No one is going to pretend that the action on the court is as important as the life-and-death action that is happening in Ukraine,” he added.

McManus referenced the March 2003 invasion of Iraq to explain how the network would approach coverage. He said the networks would update the war in Ukraine as needed and “handle it the best way that we can.”

“We have two of the best production companies and two of the best news organizations,” added Daniels, referring to CBS News and CNN. “I think we’ll make the right decisions.”

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Trump media company subpoenaed in federal criminal probe of SPAC deal

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump gives the keynote address at the Faith & Freedom Coalition during their annual “Road To Majority Policy Conference” at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center June 17, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Seth Herald | Getty Images

Donald Trump’s media company was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in connection with a criminal probe, according to the company with which the former president’s firm plans to merge.

Digital World Acquisition Corp. said in a filing Friday that Trump Media and Technology Group received a subpoena from the grand jury in Manhattan on Thursday. The Trump company also received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding a civil probe on Monday, DWAC said.

DWAC also said some current and former TMTG employees have also recently received grand jury subpoenas.

The filing came days after DWAC said the government investigations could delay or even prevent its merger with Trump’s newly formed company, which includes Truth Social, a social media app intended to be an alternative to Twitter.

Neither TMTG nor a spokeswoman for Trump immediately responded to CNBC’s requests for comment.

The Justice Department and the SEC, which regulates the stock market, are investigating the deal between DWAC and Trump Media. By merging with DWAC, which is a kind of shell company called a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, Trump’s firm would gain access to potentially billions of dollars on public equities markets.

Trump established Truth Social months after Twitter banned him for his tweets on Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Trump Media’s CEO is former Rep. Devin Nunes, one of the former president’s most ardent loyalists in the Republican Party. Trump is also considering whether to run for president in the 2024 election.

Trump has continued to spread the lie that the election was stolen from him. His alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection is being probed by a House select committee that has accused the former president of being at the center of a multipronged conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power to Biden.

Early criticism of the Trump-DWAC deal came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. In calling for an investigation, she wrote to SEC Chair Gary Gensler in November, telling him that DWAC “may have committed securities violations by holding private and undisclosed discussions about the merger as early as May 2021, while omitting this information in [SEC] filing and other public statements.”

DWAC shares are far off their highs, closing Friday at $24.20. The stock had surged above $90 in October, after the deal with Trump’s group was announced.

DWAC on Monday revealed in a securities filing that it learned June 16 that each member of its board of directors received subpoenas from the same federal grand jury.

The grand jury sought documents similar to those the SEC already requested as part of its civil probe, DWAC said. The company itself was served with a subpoena a week ago with similar requests, along with other requests relating to communications, individuals and information involving Rocket One Capital.

DWAC also revealed Monday that a board member, Bruce J. Garelick, had told management that he would quit the board during the previous week. Garelick said his resignation “was not the result of any disagreement with Digital World’s operations, policies or practices,” according to the company filing.

— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Thomas Franck contributed to this story.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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Walmart is working on a response to the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, CEO says in memo

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Walmart CEO Doug McMillon speaks at the CNBC Evolve conference November 19th in Los Angeles.

Jesse Grant | CNBC

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told employees on Friday that the company is weighing how to respond to a Supreme Court decision that ended the federal right to an abortion.

“We are working thoughtfully and diligently to figure out the best path forward, guided by our desire to support our associates, all of our associates,” he said in a memo sent to employees on Friday. “We will share details on our actions as soon as possible, recognizing that time is of the essence.”

He did not say what changes the company is considering, such as if it may cover travel expenses for workers who must travel to another state where abortion is available.

The memo was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Arkansas, home to Walmart’s headquarters, is one of several states with severe limits or bans on abortions that went into affect after the high court’s ruling.

Walmart is also the country’s largest private employer. It has about 1.6 million employees across the country, including many who live and work in states across the Sunbelt with abortion restrictions such as Texas, Oklahoma and Florida.

Since the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, companies across the country have had a mix of reactions. Some, including JPMorgan Chase, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Target, have announced new plans to cover employee travel to other states for abortions. Others, such as Kroger and Apple, said they already cover travel for medical treatments and reproductive health care. And still others have remained quiet.

Amazon, the second-largest private employer in the country, said in May that it would pay up to $4,000 in travel expenses each year for non-life-threatening medical treatments, including abortions.

Walmart already covers employee travel for some medical procedures, such as certain heart surgeries, cancer treatments and organ transplants.

Walmart health benefits cover only some abortions. According to the company’s employee handbook, charges for “procedures, services, drugs and supplies related to abortions or termination of pregnancy are not covered, except when the health of the mother would be in danger if the fetus were carried to term, the fetus could not survive the birthing process, or death would be imminent after birth.”

Plan B, an over-the-counter form of contraception, is covered only if the person gets a prescription. The pill, often called the “morning after pill,” works by preventing ovulation or preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb. It can be taken after unprotected sex or when contraception fails.

Other forms of contraception are also covered with a prescription, including birth control pills, injections and intrauterine devices, or IUDs. Some anti-abortion activists also oppose IUDs because they can stop a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

In Friday’s memo, McMillon said Walmart has gathered input from employees as it decides what to do. He also alluded to the size and diversity of both the company and its customer base.

“We know our associates and customers hold a variety of views on the issue, and this is a sensitive topic about which many of us feel strongly,” he said. “We want you to know that we see you, all of you. No matter what your position on this topic is, we want you to feel respected, valued and supported.”

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FCC authorizes SpaceX to provide mobile Starlink internet service to boats, planes and trucks

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The Starlink logo is seen in the background of a silhouetted woman holding a mobile phone.

Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission authorized SpaceX to provide Starlink satellite internet to vehicles in motion, a key step for Elon Musk’s company to further expand the service.

“Authorizing a new class of [customer] terminals for SpaceX’s satellite system will expand the range of broadband capabilities to meet the growing user demands that now require connectivity while on the move, whether driving an RV across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a U.S. port, or while on a domestic or international flight,” FCC international bureau chief Tom Sullivan wrote in the authorization posted Thursday.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the FCC decision.

Starlink is SpaceX’s network of satellites in low Earth orbit, designed to deliver high-speed internet anywhere on the globe. SpaceX has launched about 2,700 satellites to support the global network, with the base price of the service costing users $110 a month. As of May, SpaceX told the FCC that Starlink had more than 400,000 subscribers.

SpaceX has signed early deals with commercial air carriers in preparation for this decision: It has pacts with Hawaiian Airlines and semi-private charter provider JSX to provide Wi-Fi on planes. Up until now SpaceX has been approved to conduct a limited amount of inflight testing, seeing the aviation Wi-Fi market as “ripe for an overhaul.”

The FCC’s authorization also includes connecting to ships and vehicles like semi-trucks and RVs, with SpaceX having last year requested to expand from servicing stationary customers. SpaceX had already deployed a version of its service called “Starlink for RVs,” with an additional “portability” fee. But portability is not the same as mobility, which the FCC’s decision now allows.

The FCC imposed conditions on in-motion Starlink service. SpaceX is required to “accept any interference received from both current and future services authorized,” and further investment in Starlink will “assume the risk that operations may be subject to additional conditions or requirements” from the FCC.

The ruling did not resolve a broader SpaceX regulatory dispute with Dish Network and RS Access, an entity backed by billionaire Michael Dell, over the use of 12-gigahertz band – a range of frequency used for broadband communications. The FCC continues to analyze whether the band can support both ground-based and space-based services, with SpaceX pushing for the regulator to make a ruling.

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