The numbers from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship tournament are in, and March Madness’ success, both on TV and online, show that the live streams of sporting events online could actually be complementary to, and not cannibalistic of TV viewership.
March Madness on Demand (MMOD) has continued to draw stronger interest year after year, with online streaming of the tournament once again posting record numbers. Total visits to the site grew more than 60 percent, but more importantly, the hours of video consumed grew by more than 17 percent over last year’s tournament.
That growth comes even though more of the tournament was available on TV than ever before. Due to a partnership between CBS and Turner Sports, all games from the 2011 tournament were available on TV, on CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV. And at the same time that March Madness on Demand was setting records, TV broadcasts of the games averaged 9.5 million viewers, which was up 9 percent over last year. While it’s not a record –- the 2005 tournament drew an average of 10.6 million viewers –- it’s still a dramatic increase from the previous year, with the key takeaway being that streaming the tournament online didn’t actually eat into TV viewership.
That’s a powerful lesson, particularly as Turner considers whether or not it will make the online portion of the tournament part of its TV Everywhere initiative. Turner and parent Time Warner are strong proponents of TV Everywhere, which makes online streams of cable programming available for free to cable subscribers, so long as they have logged in to prove that they pay for access to that content.
Since MMOD in years past had been run through broadcast network CBS, there wasn’t as much incentive to make the tournament subject to TV Everywhere logins, instead making the online portion of the tournament available to all. As a cable network provider, however, Turner’s deals with distributors could cause it to want to protect those streams behind a TV Everywhere-type pay walls.
At the same time, there’s evidence that networks might be better off not requiring users to prove they are cable subscribers. The 2008 Summer Olympic Games, which NBC streamed freely, set records and were a great example of what’s possible when live sports are available alongside a TV broadcast. The 2010 Olympics, by contrast, were restricted to viewers who logged in to prove that they were cable subscribers. The user experience was frustrating, and led to much lower engagement and viewer numbers than just two years prior. While the Summer Games typically draw higher ratings, it seemed clear that the authenticated experience still kept many potential online viewers away.
Over the past year, TV Everywhere login systems have improved, and will be available across a wider number of distributors soon. At the same time, asking users to authenticate means that any live event won’t be able to reach its largest addressable audience. With metrics like those shown in this year’s March Madness tournament, showing growth in both online and TV viewership, it doesn’t seem that type of approach will benefit anyone.