CBS Scores Big With NCAA March Madness on Demand

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

For those who aren’t die-hard, rabid college hoops fans, your March has more to do with the schizophrenic weather — snow one week, 70 degrees the next — than it has to do with that most glorious of pasttimes — the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship (a.k.a. the Big Dance a.k.a. March Madness). It is a magical time with talk of Cinderellas and bubble babies, buzzer beaters and diaper dandies — not to mention it’s one of the biggest betting weekends in sports. Plus it’s a tremendous boon to office rats everywhere, as CBS is streaming the entire event live.

Ad revenue for CBS’s NCAA March Madness on Demand is up 20 percent from the prior year’s take of $23 million, according to a MediaWeek report. Revenue this year could climb as high as $30 million. It’s a sign of the power of sporting events and their ability to draw a captive audience. Consider this: Even as budgets are being slashed and there are increasing questions about the effectiveness of online advertising, major brands such as Coke, AT&T, and Pontiac have re-upped their advertising. Also of note is that Comcast will be the sponsor of the Boss button — the feature that will throw up a faux spreadsheet to protect a hoops junky from an employer’s impromptu walk-by. (This of course assumes people are still employed, or in this brutal climate, a boss may be focused on such things.)

Moreover, CBS is taking the same route that broadcast network NBC did with its coverage of the 2008 Olympics by partnering with Microsoft’s Silverlight. It’s not a surprise that CBS is using a new vendor; many were disappointed by the user experience provided by Joost during last year’s March Madness. This event is yet another opportunity for Microsoft to demonstrate its ability to provide live streams at scale. After losing to Adobe as a partner for the comprehensive coverage of the 2009 Major League Baseball season, Microsoft must step up to the plate with March Madness if it is to keep pace in the high-stakes game of being a network infrastructure partner.

And in what may be a sign of things to come, CBS is offering live streaming to the iPhone and the iTouch over WiFi for $4.99 through an app in the iTunes store. So if you want to watch it on TV or on your computer, you pay with your attention — watching ads. But if you want to watch it anytime, anywhere, you pay with your wallet at $4.99.

Though it’s a premium sporting event that is its own category, March Madness provides another case study of how people consume video content. In a sign of how serious CBS is about the online game, the media company just upgraded the HD offering on TV.com to 1080p (powered by Adobe Flash player). So, how consumers choose to engage the event over the next month will have implications on the growing TV-watching destination. Pay close attention this month not just to my Duke Blue Devils — but who watches where and how many cough up dollars to never miss a single shot. Such data will tell you just how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, and where you may want to spend your next marketing dollars.

Join ClickZ at Search Engine Strategies New York on March 25. More than one dozen online marketing professionals will discuss the latest issues in the larger universe of digital marketing.

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