Melissa Abernathy is no girlie basketball fan. When her North Carolina Tar Heels aren't on the tube near her home in Hoboken, N.J., she drives as far as Richmond, Va., to watch a game. So she perked up when she heard about CBS Sports's plan for live Internet broadcasts of games from the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s men's basketball tournament this month. "I'm going to [sign up] right now," she says.
She may have lots of company. CBS Corp. hopes to draw millions with March Madness on Demand, the first-ever free Webcast of the tournament. It works like this: Fans register at NCAASports.com, run by CBS's SportsLine unit, then watch games live on the site. They'll have their choice of any game except for the one being broadcast by the local CBS affiliate. (CBS determines which game to black out based on the location of the computer being used.) Fans can also watch games after they're played or view highlights and other features. The live Webcasts will continue until the tournament is down to eight teams. "We'll get several million people," predicts Larry S. Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media. "It wouldn't surprise me to get the audience they get on TV, but stretched out."
Sports events have been shown on the Net in the past, by CBS, ESPN, and others. But the audiences have been limited, since they typically cost viewers money or are niche events. The madness this March could be a turning point. Since the Webcast will be paid for with advertising, it could draw the biggest online viewership ever. Live 8, a series of 10 worldwide benefit concerts broadcast on Time Warner Inc.'s (TWX ) AOL Music portal last July, holds the record, with 5 million same-day viewers.
The tournament could also showcase how the Internet can provide a better experience than television, in some ways. In the first four days, from Mar. 16-19, as many as four games are played at a time. While TV viewers have to watch whatever game the local CBS affiliate shows, Net viewers get more control and choice. They can follow their favorite team wherever it plays or switch between games when the action flags. They can even pop open three windows and watch a trio of games at once. Jeff Lanctot, Vice-President and general manager of ad agency Avenue A/Razorfish, says the tournament could be like comedian Milton Berle's pathbreaking television shows, which brought mass audiences to TV beginning in 1948.
Advertisers are intrigued. CBS has 20 sponsors for the Webcast, led by Dell (DELL ) and Courtyard by Marriott. Deborah Fell, a senior vice-president at Marriott International Inc. (MAR ), says the audience is full of potential business travelers, since college basketball draws so many young and middle-aged men. Dell figures a Webcast is a smart way to nab tech enthusiasts likely to buy its higher-end computers. The online ads will help CBS make money from the 11-year, $6 billion deal it signed for the NCAA tournament rights in 1999.
One of CBS's biggest challenges will be to deliver high-quality video online. To minimize problems, CBS requires people to register with a name, e-mail address, and other information. Those who sign up by Mar. 15 will get early access to Webcasts. If the site is too busy on game day to let everyone watch at once without crashing the system, latecomers will have to wait until other fans log off.
That's not CBS's only innovative move. Since first-round games go on through the workday on Mar. 16-17, its software is designed to let people view games while keeping bosses from knowing who's goofing off. Click on the video player's "boss button" and a spreadsheet pops on-screen. "Not that I recommend watching during work hours, but I understand that people do," deadpans Sean McManus, president of CBS News & Sports.
By Timothy J. Mullaney