March Madness, Again on Demand

Once again this year, CBS is making March Madness available to the masses online at CBSSportsLine.com. And this time, it’s free.

Well, mostly free.

The first time CBS offered the men’s Division I NCAA basketball tournament online and on demand was in 2004. Back then, CBS charged a subscription fee to watch selected games online. Its approach this year is an interesting one with a few quirks. It’s allowing fans to watch up to 56 games from the first three rounds of the tournament, and it’s making those games available for free.

Let me say that again: free.

For rounds four through six, CBS will only deliver game highlights.

Not to worry, this doesn’t mean you can’t see the final rounds. A distribution deal with iTunes gives fans access to the semifinals and finals. iTunes and CBS have teamed up to deliver these games the day after they’re played. Of course, this deal isn’t free (I’m still waiting for iTunes to start offering ad-supported downloads). It’s offering individual games for $1.99 and a season pass for $19.99. For that price, games are automatically downloaded for the user.

These games will be condensed versions, which is raising questions among fans as to whether those games will be commercial-free or nothing more than highlight reels. Reuters quotes Apple iTunes executive Eddy Cue as saying, “Once halftime and advertising breaks are removed, full-length games run about an hour.” That’s what it’s talking about when it says “condensed version.” So, it seems, fans should be satisfied with the content.

Another quirk of this year’s offering is that iTunes and CBS are putting a cap on the number of people who can access the content at any one time. Fans are asked to register prior to accessing the content. If you know someone who knows someone or if you registered early enough, you’re granted VIP status and automatic access to the tournament content.

Everyone else? We get what “general admission access.” When viewing reaches the preset caps, fans are placed in a waiting room. Users can see how many other people are in line and where they are in the queue. The odd thing is users will see that they’re, say, number 71,384 in line. And if the user’s in the general admission line, he’ll see where he’d be if he were a VIP (not that there’s any way to step up to VIP status).

I’m sure CBS knows what it’s doing. It’s not like this tactic is going to tick anybody off. In my experience, you get through the waiting room fairly quickly.

In 2004, I wrote about CBS’s initial foray into on-demand March Madness and made a few suggestions about how it could be better. I’m disappointed CBS implemented only some of my recommendations. I have no way of knowing whether I had any influence on the way they now approach their online, on-demand broadcasts, but roll with me here for a second.

I’m really happy to see at least the first part of the tournament is available for free. It appears CBS is counting on key sponsors: Dell and Courtyard by Marriott, to make that possible. They’re also making historical highlights available. That’s the sort of added content that will make hard-core fans happy.

It’s missing opportunities to do even more and deliver a much more engaging, immersive experience to sports fans. I suggested player stats in the interface, and the ability for fans to communicate through instant messaging while their favorite teams battle it out. CBS gives fans the ability to have up to four games play at once. Why not make it three game windows and an instant messaging window? Fans, even in an office environment, are going to want to connect with other fans, interact, razz fans of the opposing team, and so on. Why not let them do so online? Right in the same interface where they’re watching the game?

Why not provide more content to more people? If you’re capping the number of people who can watch the games, why not give people in the waiting room something to engage their interest while waiting, like real-time stats? And if you’re asking fans to register, why not ask them for their mobile numbers so they can get real-time stats that way? An even better question, perhaps, is, “Why are you limiting the number of users in the first place?”

Even with its shortcomings, fans seem fairly happy. I wanted to get a true fanatic’s perspective on it. James Wilson in my office is a huge college basketball fan, specifically a Kansas fan. “I think that with their NCAA coverage, CBS has essentially harnessed the first mass-appeal, live, online event ever,” said Wilson. “For example, there are Kansas fans (such as myself) who live in Texas, and CBS has made it very easy for us to watch the games that we want to see. They’ve even made games available to us that were never even available before. Go Jayhawks!” (Well, maybe next year.)

Agencies and advertisers should check out CBS’s March Madness On Demand before it’s gone. Then, think of ways to create innovative approaches with on-demand events like this one. I’m excited about the possibilities this creates. I hope CBS pushes itself to create something even more immersive next year. If you have ideas on how this sort of delivery can be even more effective, let me know.

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