"March Madness" is a term used to describe the fervor with which Americans follow the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college basketball tournament, usually starting in mid-March and ending early-April of each year.
It is one of the most closely followed sporting tournaments in the US, perhaps eclipsed only by the Superbowl.
And much like the Superbowl or the Olympics, it provides media companies across the value chain the opportunity to showcase and experiment with new technologies and services. In some ways, March Madness might even be a better platform: As a college tournament, it is able to attract young millennial college students who are not otherwise major sports fans, but are early adopters of new digital technologies.
Leading up to the event, a number of providers launched new services. For example, Turner Sports and CBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS), which will be broadcasting the live games, have partnered with the NCAA to create a new live streaming app, NCAA March Madness Live. This provides streaming coverage of the tournament to 15 different platforms including all the usual suspects: iOS, Android and Roku devices, Amazon's Fire TV, Google's Chromecast, Xbox, etc. And of course, viewers can also stream games via their web browsers from NCAA.com and CBS.com.
There are also a number of new features offered this year to add to the viewing experience by other providers. Amazon's Alexa digital assistant can now provide game results and radio coverage, Apple devices offer a new interactive bracket and Sony's PlayStation Vue service has a new multi-game viewing option that shows up to three live channels at once.
Turner and the NCAA are also offering six games in virtual reality through the NCAA March Madness Live VR App for the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear headset. Sponsored by Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), these VR feeds can be purchased via the Oculus store, and come in two flavors. The premium, or "Gold" option, includes multiple camera feeds and audio, along with dedicated VR-specific commentary, while the "Silver" option offers only a single-camera (180-degree) feed, with standard TV commentary. This is part of a multi-year deal with Intel to use its Intel True VR technology for this event.
Meanwhile Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) has integrated new features into its X1 set-top platform to help viewers toggle between different games, check statistics and game previews while still watching the current game. The Xfinity Stream app and web portal also offer live streaming of all games for out-of-home access, and the VoD portal will feature games, daily summaries and highlights.
Similarly, Twitter Inc. has seized on the event to drive up engagement and usage. It is live streaming an exclusive show entitled NCAA March Madness Now in conjunction with Turner Sports, the NCAA and CBS Sports. It is specifically designed to engage with tweets about the event. It has also created eight new custom emojis specially for those tweeting about the event.
Despite significant drops in ratings for sporting events last year, raising questions about sports events' ability to aggregate audiences, this year's March Madness is breaking records on all platforms. Live broadcasts across TBS, CBS, TNT and truTV channels on Sunday, March 19, averaged 11.9 million viewers, 34% higher than in 2016. According to the NCAA it was the most-watched first Sunday since 1993. Viewership was also higher leading up to that first Sunday, averaging 9,325,000 million viewers, 10% higher than in 2016. In fact, the tournament so far is averaging the highest viewership it has seen in 24 years. (See Is Sports Programming Losing Its Edge?)
The event had also generated a record 69.1 million live streams through that first Sunday, an increase of 24% over last year.
This data flies in the face of last year's ratings declines for sporting events, and concerns about younger viewers drifting away from sports. But just as we can't draw conclusions about a trend from one year's data, we can't decide declines in viewership have reversed halfway through one event. We'll have to wait and see how viewership shapes up over the course of the entire event, and what kind of ratings other sporting events draw over the course of the year.
But in the meantime, the buildup around the tournament does offer a rare opportunity for media companies to roll-out new technologies and services, and drive viewer engagement. This could help longer-term product development plans for them, and facilitate new, innovative features.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation