For college basketball fans, this week kicks off the most exciting time of the year, with the 2016 NCAA men’s Division 1 basketball tournament set to swing into action. As in previous years, broadcasters use coverage of this event to step up with new ways to satisfy viewers, and challenge video infrastructures to deliver the best experience. Following in the path of last year’s tournament coverage, Turner Sports has enhanced their popular app, NCAA March Madness Live, adding more fan friendly features and incorporating new technology. Once again, metrics on last year’s viewership of the app, such as hours of live video streaming and number of live feeds, were up dramatically over the previous year, and are expected to increase again this year. On the TV side, CBS and pay-TV channels TBS, TNT and TruTV will broadcast all 67 games over the three-week period.
Let’s take a look at how the March Madness Live app is being upgraded for this year’s action. It starts with the usual housekeeping of maintaining compatibility with popular devices and the latest operating systems, and newer technology such as Vine and Instagram. More importantly, extensive testing to ensure it can handle massive amounts of traffic. Turner Sports reported that last year more than 14 million hours of live video was streamed, and 49 million live feeds of games were delivered.
This year the schedule of games Bracket is optimized for smartphones and tablets to make it easier to zoom to any branch to watch live action or view highlights and results of games. What has been added is a way to map game-related Tweeting activity throughout a given game, so viewers can visualize the volume Twitter content.
By hovering over the map, the latest comments from that location can be read. Another change is altering the app screen design to look different for each round, but the most dramatic innovation is for the Final Four. For the first time, Turner Sports and broadcast partner CBS Sports will air three different versions of each Final Four game on three different networks. TBS will handle the standard national broadcast of each game, while TNT and TruTV will air versions with announcers associated with each school. These feeds will be available online via the app, and should be great for fans following their favorite school.
For cord cutters and shavers, there are multiple options available to watch the tournament. Streaming of live sports events is increasing, and a guide to watching March Madness online is available at USA Today, and http://www.cutcabletoday.com/watch-march-madness-online/ .
Another innovation is a Virtual Reality (VR) broadcast of the Big East Basketball Tournament leading up to March Madness. Fox Sports and Next VR collaborated to stream the Big East quarterfinal, semifinal and championship games in VR. Viewers require the Samsung Gear VR headset and a Galaxy smartphone as its display. Viewers will see HD camera shots from center court, sideline player huddles, under the basket, and streams of graphics of player stats, scores and game updates.
Let’s not forget radio. Yes, radio. Westwood One, the largest American radio network, holds radio play-by-play rights for the men’s NCAA tournament, and will broadcast all 67 games on more than 500 affiliated stations, SiriusXM satellite, streaming online, and on mobile platforms. Westwood One claims their sports broadcasts on radio attracts an upscale audience, and cited a Nielsen report indicating March Madness listeners are more likely to be employed than TV viewers across light, medium and heavy consumption categories, and to have incomes above $75K. For advertisers, this offers a chance to reach listeners at several points. Nielsen says among basketball fans, 89% listen at home, 41% at work and 40% in the car. This variety helps complement coverage on social media, TV and the Internet. A radio play-by-play ad campaign increases ad listening frequency 50% on NCAA media plans.
All of this attention and activity for coverage across media types follows a pattern established in the earliest days of radio, that sportscasting has traditionally been at the forefront of technology advancement, with high profile sports events being the first programming to use new capabilities. With March Madness, we are seeing pioneering VR broadcasting and first time broadcasts of multiple versions of an event. As 2016 rolls out, expect to see other new media formats used to give sports audiences a “just like being there” experience. CDNs are poised and ready to bring it on. Let the games begin.