As March Madness Games Go Online, Advertisers Follow

Each March, college basketball fans whip themselves into the frenzy of tournament games known as March Madness. But with as many as 56 games occurring in the early rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament alone, and even more broadcast through National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournaments, catching it all on TV is not an option. To meet rabid fans’ needs, broadcasters and athletic associations are streaming games over the Internet and creating a whole new method for advertisers to reach out to a dedicated fan base.

With the increasing popularity of online video, game broadcasters are expecting a larger audience for this year’s March Madness tournament than ever before.

“We do expect more traffic, in part of the success of the product last year, the continued fever pitch around March Madness, the uptake of video online, and the good consumer experience that users have seen online in the last 12 months,” said Joe Ferreira, vice president programming and executive producer at CBS SportsLine. “Our projections are it’s going to help us with March Madness.”

While CBS owns the rights to televise the NCAA tournament games, it’s the broadcast giant’s online division, CBS Sportsline, that will put the games online. CBS itself can only show one game per region in the early rounds of the tournament, but CBS Sportsline will make all of the first 56 games available.

This will be the fifth year CBS Sportsline has broadcast the NCAA tournament online, and the second year games will be free to viewers using an ad-supported model, after previously requiring subscriptions. Last year’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship generated 14 million streams of live video and recorded over four million visitors during the first four days of the tournament.

“Last year we went free with an advertising model and we saw a huge success,” said Ferreira. “We got tons of positive response on that.”

In preparation for this year’s tournament, CBS Sportsline doubled its video feed capacity through agreements with Content Data Networks and Akamai, increased the size of the video player by 50 percent and increased the bit rate to improve the quality of the video, said Ferreira. It also re-signed Courtyard Marriott and Dell as sponsors of its March Madness On Demand player.

“These packages are going to be a little bigger, in terms of the amount of impressions that we deliver, so we priced accordingly,” he said.

CBS Sportsline will not run the same ads that are broadcast on CBS television for the online games, but will instead replace them with ads specifically created for the On Demand version. By doing so, it provides an incremental revenue stream for the company, said Ferreira.

While the NCAA tournament often gets the lions share of basketball attention in March, other tournaments are also looking to Internet video to allow fans and alumni of schools to watch the games that might not be broadcast on television. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which includes approximately 350 small-college athletics programs, has partnered with XOS Technologies to stream the NAIA Division I and Division II Men’s and Women’s Basketball National Championship tournaments. Fans can watch 120 games in the tournament through a hybrid subscription and ad-supported video player at CollegeSportsDirect.com.

Although less well know, the tournaments broadcast by XOS do have major advertisers, including Jeep and CBS, according to Nada Usina, president of XOS Technology.

“That CBS itself is advertising on a competitor’s network… is a true testament of the fanatic audience that we have,” Usina said.

Although the fans of smaller school teams may be just as dedicated as those of bigger name schools, it’s often difficult for them to attend tournament games.

“It’s very hard for our schools spread across the country to know if they are going to these tournaments until the last minute. It’s hard for people to go across the country to reach the games,” said Mike Campbell, vice president of marketing and corporate sponsorships for NAIA. “We wanted to offer a service so that the fans and their alumni can watch the games.”

By participating in the NAIA tournament and in the broadcasting of the games online, it allows smaller schools to not only provide the games to alumni and fans, but to reach out to potential new students as well.

“Even though we are a small school compared to some of the other big leagues, we’re very family oriented. Everybody enjoys following the athletics that go on here,” said Mark Colachico, sports information director, for Corban College a four year Christian college, in Salem Or., whose women’s basketball team will be part of the NAIA tournament in Iowa. “This is really going to put the Corban name out there.”

As more and more tournament games are broadcast online, broadcasters like XOS and CBS Sportsline’s fellow CBS division CSTV are establishing longer term relationships with school athletic departments to broadcast games throughout the season.

“I would hope that down the road we can get to the point where we are video streaming all of our athletic events to our Web page, so our fans can follow it,” says Colachico. “The biggest pay off for us is the fan base. We found out that our fan base expands across the nation.”

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