It's March, so there are shining moments ahead for CBS and CBS College Sports Network with the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship.
CBS tips off its multiplatform "March Madness" tourney coverage on March 18, culminating with the Final Four on April 3 and title game on April 5 in Indianapolis. For its part, CBS College Sports will have a pair of out-of-market tourney games, one each on March 18 and 19, plus some 80-plus hours of complementary tournament fare, which will play before some 56 million households as the network expands its reach via a free preview with many of the nation's top distributors.
But CBS and its cable cousin, as well as executives in the TV sports community, will also have their eye on college hoops throughout this summer and on July 31 in particular. That's when the NCAA can opt-out of the three remaining years -- worth some $2.1 billion -- of its 11-year, $6 billion dollar contract for the TV, multiplatform and marketing rights to the basketball tourney. The NCAA receives about 90% of its annual revenue from the contract, with some 96% of the funds filtering down to member institutions, according to officials.
The NCAA is exploring that option and possible expansion of the 65-team tournament to a 68- or 96-squad field and has sent out a request for proposal that reportedly drew interest from a number of parties: Turner Sports, which might team with the incumbent, ESPN; Fox; and Comcast, which owns national sports service Versus, regional sports networks and is under federal review for its proposed $30 billion joint venture with NBC Universal that would bring the Peacock network and NBC Sports into its stable.
At its annual media day supporting the upcoming tournament on March 9, CBS Sports and News president Sean McManus said the network "expects to be carrying the tournament next year and beyond. We have a history at CBS of keeping events that we want," he said, listing The Masters and PGA package, SEC football and basketball, and the U.S. Open tennis championships. "We plan to follow with the NCAA tournament as well."
McManus, in a published report, also indicated that he wouldn't rule out the possibility of more tourney games appearing on CBS College Sports.
Also potentially up for bid: the other college championship events like the women's basketball tournament, soccer, softball, lacrosse and the College World Series, the rights to which are currently held by ESPN and its other holdings. When that pact was renewed for some $200 million by ESPN in 2001, CBS didn't have an outlet to accommodate all those competitions, which now could now be leveraged by CBS College Sports as a means to add cache to its extant properties and build its subscriber base.
Greg Shaheen, NCAA senior vice president for basketball and business strategies, said in interview after the March 9 media day that the championship package is co-terminus with the Division I basketball tournament and those rights could be obtained.
"We are open to flexible proposals and would consider that separately. We're considering the broadest activation of our assets as possible," he said, emphasizing that no decision has been made by the NCAA to pursue the new rights deals.
In the meantime with the 2010 tourney approaching, CBS College has signed deals with 18 affiliate partners, including Dish Network, Verizon FiOS, Insight, Mediacom, Suddenlink and RCN, and gained wider berths with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks, for its free preview that will put it before 56 million households through April 5. CBS College, which recently upgraded to digital- cable positioning with Cablevision, now counts 38 million subs, 10 million more than at this point last year, according to network officials.
As part of its 80 hours of tourney coverage, CBS College Sports will showcase NCAA March Madness Highlights Presented by Coke Zero, the tourney's official highlight show; NCAA March Madness Central Engineered by GMC Sierra, which brings viewers exclusive in-progress game highlights, live look-ins (sponsored by AT&T) and press conferences from every team at every site from the first-round through the title tilt; Bracket Week Presented by Old Spice, which runs throughout conference tournament programming; and the NCAA March Madness Pre-Game Show Presented by State Farm.
For its part, CBSSports.com will once again provide free Web access for all 63 tourney games with its March Madness On Demand platform. Jason Kint, senior vice president and general manager of CBSSports.com, said that MMOD would "easily surpass" the 2009 tourney's total of 7.5 million unique visitors, which represented a 58% jump from the 2008 level. Last spring, in what Kint calls the "biggest live streaming event on the Internet," MMOD generated some 8.6 million hours of video and audio consumption, a 75% leap from the prior year.
Led by presenting sponsors AT&T, Coca-Cola and Capital One, ad inventory on the platform is sold out. CBS officials indicated that business was up 20% from last year's take of $30 million, but would not specify the expected total.
Teaming with Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp. and LG Electronics, CBS Sports is also stepping onto the 3D court as it will deliver the Final Four national semifinals on April 3 and the championship game in the enhanced format to some 100 theaters nationwide. Theater pricing has yet to be announced.
CBS Sports executive vice president, operations and production Ken Aagaard said that there also have been conversations with cable operators and DirecTV about possibly offering the trio of marquee matchups in 3D.