CBS's Slam Dunk on the Web

The runaway success of the network's March Madness Webcasts surpassed all expectations. Execs are planning an even bigger score next year

Advertisers figured that the first-ever free Webcast of the NCAA men's basketball tournament would be big. But they might sooner have bet on George Mason University making the Final Four, than on the event being as big a success as it has been.

With final numbers from the 56-game Webcast coming in, advertisers say the audience for online March Madness was more than twice what CBS (CBS) promised. CBS' Sportsline Web division says it drew a total of 5 million visits to March Madness on Demand, instead of the 2.5 million forecast. Most of the visitors came on the first weekend of the tournament, when up to four games were being played at once but only one at a time was broadcast on any given CBS-TV affiliate. The audience exploded this year when CBS and the National Collegiate Athletic Association put the games online for free. Last year, it cost $20 to see the Webcasts.


  The results came close to breaking Webcast audience records. March Madness' total audience was just shy of the record set by AOL (TWX) for the Live 8 charity concerts, originally broadcast last July. Live 8 drew 5 million online viewers for the live Webcast, and added millions more in the subsequent weeks as people watched recordings of the show. CBS says March Madness on Demand attracted more users at any one time -- more than 200,000 -- than Live 8. But Yahoo!'s (YHOO) Webcast last year of a space shuttle launch had 335,000 people online at once.

"Next year, the audience will be bigger because broadband video is a maturing medium," says Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media. The tournament's semifinals this weekend, as well as the championship game on Apr. 2, will be shown live on TV only, to keep the Webcast from competing with CBS's broadcasts of the same games.

Advertisers say this year's audience was more than enough. At General Motors' (GM) Pontiac division, advertising manager Dino Bernacchi said audience numbers were "absolutely outstanding." He chalked up the high interest to massive publicity before the tournament, as well as to the unusual number of games in which high-ranked teams struggled in early rounds, or were decided with buzzer-beating shots. And he said the online promotion, coupled with TV ads, drove "at least a 10% to 15%" increase in traffic to a Pontiac site promoting new car models.

Advertisers like Nike (NKE) , State Farm, and Courtyard by Marriott (MAR) said it was too soon to have specific information on the effectiveness of their campaigns, or else declined to release it, but all said the audience size topped expectations.


  CBS also generally won praise for producing a high-quality and fun online experience. Jeff Lanctot, general manager of the online ad agency Avenue A/Razorfish in Seattle, says the quality of the video was high, if not nearly as good as on a big-screen TV. He says Avenue A client and March Madness on Demand advertiser Nike -- as well as other clients who passed on sponsoring the first-ever free March Madness Webcast -- are now likely to look harder at Web sports video.

Advertisers are impressed by the audience numbers, and they know that consumers like the flexibility of jumping between games and playing back highlights when they want. "Sports is the kind of event that's made for this," Lanctot says. "It's a nice supplement to TV, but not a replacement for it, because [the video quality] still pales next to a plasma TV."

CBS also won kudos for designing a digital "waiting room" to manage the load on the Webcast's servers during the first days of the tournament on Mar. 16 and 17. At the peak, as many as 150,000 more visitors were trying to get on than the system could handle. Lanctot said CBS' visual approach of showing where an individual stood in a line of people helped visitors understand how long they were likely to have to wait.

For some viewers who had not preregistered before the tournament began on Mar. 16, the delays were up to an hour long. The idea was to make people wait rather than risk flooding the system and causing service interruptions, Sportsline Executive Producer Joe Ferreira says. Users who preregistered never had to wait longer than five minutes to see games. Still, State Farm Insurance Media and Sponsorship Director Ed Gold said advertisers want CBS to upgrade the system to eliminate waits next year.


  CBS says that this year's March Madness is just the beginning. Kramer says the network could have accommodated more surfers and made more money if it had known how well its technology would work, and knows that next year, they can let in more people and spend less money to support the Webcast.

CBS plans more Webcasts, especially of so-called minor college sports that air on CBS' College Sports TV digital cable network. In April, it will Webcast coverage of how every golfer in the Masters handles the fabled Amen Corner, or holes 11-13 at Augusta National Golf Club.

Look for deeper tournament coverage of sports such as tennis and lacrosse -- either championship games of sports not covered on cable TV or earlier rounds in tournaments where the finals are already broadcast. After all, the advertiser reaction to March Madness is making execs at CBS cut down a few nets of their own.

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