Broadband's Fast Break3/24/2006 7:00 PM Eastern
CBS's annual March Madness live telecasts from the first round of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament predictably drew millions of eyeballs. What's unusual about the tally is that millions of those viewers watched the games via the Internet.
The network's broadband coverage of the three-week tournament via its NCAAsports.com Web site is one of the most ambitious offerings of live sports programming over the Internet. But CBS is not alone in streaming live games to computer screens.
Established networks like College Sports Television, now owned by CBS, and ESPN, as well as startups like World Championship Sports Network are providing hundreds of live sports events via broadband — a majority of which is exclusive to what is carried on linear channels.
As more consumers take advantage of the increased speed and bandwidth capacity of the Internet, network executives say sports fans and advertisers are beginning to see the value of offering sports — from the National Collegiate Athletics Association to the Olympics to pro leagues —via broadband.
“This is the future, and we think it can be complementary to traditional television [sports] viewing,” said CBS Sports senior vice president of programming Michael Aresco.
Indeed, executives say broadband's massive bandwidth capability allows networks like ESPN to offer events that they can't accommodate on their various linear channels due to scheduling restrictions. ESPN's broadband service, ESPN360, offered some 140 live sports shows since launching 14 months ago, ranging from college football to ice skating — about 30% of which weren't simulcast on the network, according to Tanya VanCourt, vice president and general manager of ESPN broadband and interactive television.
“When we have a great game like the [March 1] Villanova-St. John's [college basketball game] that we don't have any capability of airing [on our linear channels], we want that programming to live someplace where it can be exposed to our consumers and they can get access to it,” said VanCourt. “A year ago, viewers wouldn't have had access to that game.”
And fans are slowly but surely flocking to the games. Though VanCourt did not have specific viewership numbers for the Villanova-St. Johns tilt, she said that more than 50,000 unique viewers have tuned into one of the network's 13 live Big East broadband telecasts.
Fans certainly jumped through hoops to watch the NCAA tournament on the Internet. CBS generated more than 14 million streams of live video from the tournament and recorded over 4 million visitors during the first four days of the tournament (March 16-19), CBS officials said.
For networks like WCSN, broadband is the only way to offer its live coverage of Olympic Games-based international and domestic sports tournaments, said network founder Claude Ruibal. He added the network's live fare — around 800 to 1,000 hours of live programming per year, including sports such as track and field and gymnastics — represents more than half of its online viewership. That's an impressive tally considering that much of the live programming is international and runs between midnight and 6 a.m., Ruibal said.
“People are also watching a lot longer than the archival viewing,” he added, although he would not reveal specific figures.
That stickiness, along with the appeal of live sports programming, has drawn advertisers to the broadband sports marketplace, Aresco said. CBS signed more than 20 sponsors to its March Madness broadband coverage, including such blue-chip brands as Dell computers and Courtyard at Marriott.
The strength of its advertising lineup allowed CBS to offer its March Madness package free to consumers in an effort to draw more eyeballs — CSTV charged $19.95 last year for the same offering.
But not all distributors are going the free-to-all-Internet-users route with broadband sports. ESPN is only offering ESPN360 to operators who pay an undisclosed licensing fee for the service. So while more than 90 million subscribers receive the linear ESPN service, only 8 million broadband users, who access the service through such distributors as Verizon Communications, Adelphia Communications Corp., Charter Communications Inc. and others, can receive ESPN360 content.
“We believe that the model that we're offering is the right model for our consumers because it gives our consumers access to great content for free and is a great model for our affiliate partners who we've had a really strong historic relationship with on the television side,” said VanCourt. “If this model is not necessarily one that we can turn up overnight and allow every fan in America to see all of our content, then we're comfortable with spending the time we need to build up that audience.”
The National Basketball League is only allowing subscribers to its NBA League Pass pay-per-view and satellite package access to a similar live streaming Internet package through its NBA.com site, according to NBA Entertainment senior vice president of interactive services Brenda Spoonemore.
At WCSN, consumers pay a subscription fee ranging from $19.95 for access to a specific tournament to $49.95 for full access to the track and field season.
CSTV charges various fees to access programming from affiliated colleges and universities, according to CSTV president and CEO Brian Bedol. The network also offers complete access to some 90 schools and 7,000 live game audio and video streams for $14.99 per month and $99 per year.
But whether it's accessed free or for a fee, WCSN's Rubical said the burgeoning video broadband sports business will continue to explode over the next few years.
“I think there will be a lot of pressure [from networks] to obtain broadband rights because it's a lot richer interface for advertisers and for producers,” he said. “It's certainly an area that we feel is vibrant and important.”
But with national and regional sports networks, sports leagues and other players offering thousands of hours of live sports fare on the Web, how will consumers keep up with all the choices?
ESPN's VanCourt believes that the marketplace will eventually consolidate as consumers move toward familiar and trustworthy brands like ESPN.
“We will find that in the future all of these things will be available online somewhere because that's where fans are living. But I don't think the fan wants to go to 20 different places for their sports content,” she said. “If the fans are online then the content will go online, and if the content goes online then the people who are best at telling those stories around that content and the people who have access to that content are the ones that will succeed.”