Good news for college basketball fans: The NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship will continue to be streamed live online for free — and this year, the March Madness tournament will be available for the first time on Apple’s (s AAPL) iPad tablet.
Year after year, fans have flocked to March Madness on Demand for streaming video of the tournament, especially in the early portion of the tournament when games are played during the week and during work hours. Last year, the broadband version posted record viewership in just the first four days of the tournament, ending with 11.7 million hours of college basketball streamed during March and April — a 36 percent increase over the previous year.
But while CBS (s CBS) has historically run the TV and online broadcasts of the tournament, last year it announced a partnership with Turner Sports (s TWX) that splits the costs of the tournament. The deal will also bring more of the tournament to TV, since Turner and CBS can split the games between them, and TBS, TNT and truTV will broadcast games that wouldn’t otherwise have been shown. But when the partnership was announced, there was some concern about whether or not the online portion of the tournament would remain open to all, due to Turner’s — and parent company Time Warner’s — aggressive embrace of TV Everywhere.
Under the TV Everywhere model, pay TV subscribers that log in to broadband services from their cable, IPTV and satellite providers get access to live and on-demand content from cable channels that they’ve paid for. So a Comcast (s cmcsa) subscriber who pays for HBO will also get a wide range of HBO TV show episodes for free. The downside is that the folks who don’t pay for cable aren’t able to access that content online.
So when Turner took over March Madness on Demand and announced it would broadcast games on its cable channels, it seemed probable that the company would put the service behind a pay wall. When asked why Turner decided to keep March Madness freely available to all, Senior VP and General Manager of Turner Sports Matthew Hong told us in a phone interview, “Not having been authenticated for prior years, that sets the expectations among users that it will be free in 2011.” Hong didn’t rule out the possibility that March Madness would be authenticated in later years, however, saying Turner Sports would continue to evaluate the distribution plans as time goes on.
While March Madness on Demand will remain free, it will also add new features, capabilities and devices that viewers can use to access the service. The broadband version will be streamed in Adobe’s Flash (s ADBE) as opposed to the Microsoft Silverlight (s MSFT) player that CBS had used in previous years. The new implementation also gives users the ability to find the games they want to watch on TV, stream live stats along with the game and has created hooks into multiple social networks for viewers to share scores and highlights with friends while also interacting with hosts and other fans.
The tournament will also be available on the iPad for the first time, and unlike in previous years, the iPhone and iPod Touch apps will be available for free. Making live mobile streaming free also made sense in part because the broadband platform was free. And Hong said Turner was able to sign up sponsors that want to be associated with those apps rather than charging mobile users for the experience.
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