SBJ/March 12-18, 2012/Media

Will fans pay for the Dance?

With Madness adding authentication, CBS-Turner says yes

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In a roundabout way, Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler played a major part in easing CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus’ concerns over charging for online access to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

“I happened to spend some time with Steven Tyler at the AFC Championship Game [in January], and I said, ‘You know something, ‘Walk This Way’ is a pretty damn good song,’” McManus said.

Last Tuesday, McManus went to iTunes and spent $1.29 to download the classic rock song.

CBS and Turner are betting that college hoops fans will warm to the new pay model.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“I didn’t find that problematic,” he said. “I didn’t think I was being overcharged.”

McManus and David Levy, Turner president of sales, distribution and sports, are expecting a similar reaction from consumers for the significantly reworked and rebranded March Madness Live.

For the first time, Turner and CBS are operating a two-tiered business model for the popular online offering: using authentication and fees to access the tournament games. Cable and satellite TV subscribers will be able to watch games free online if they also get the linear TV channel showing that game. But those who either cannot or choose not to authenticate will be charged $3.99 for the entire 67-game tournament.

“That’s less than six cents per game,” Levy said. “That’s a nominal fee. We don’t believe that will be inhibiting at all.”
Still, the authentication effort is tied into a broader industry initiative for Turner and much of the television business toward TV Everywhere. For the past month, Turner has been testing the authentication process that verifies cable and satellite TV subscribers.


Some networks, including Fox Sports, have shied away from authentication, saying it is too clunky to work effectively. But CBS and Turner are expecting the white-hot intensity of the tournament and March Madness Live to help drive consumer adoption overall and aid the advance of TV Everywhere.

“We’re not concerned about authenticating this product,” Levy said. “In fact, we think it will help drive authentication in general because we have a product and demand for this type of product. People want to find it. They’ll figure out a way to authenticate it.”

The new business model for March Madness Live ends a six-year period where tournament games on broadband were a free, ad-supported product. The 26 tournament games to be shown on CBS still will be free at CBSSports.com, but Levy and McManus remain bullish on the broader push toward the pay model.

“It goes back to the philosophy of our deal,” McManus said, referencing the 14-year partnership among Turner, CBS and the NCAA to show the tournament. “We look at every decision on what’s best for the partnership, and what’s going to grow the venture the most.”

Ad sales for the tournament are sold out on the digital platforms, and nearly sold out on TV.

“We’re way ahead of expectations,” Levy said.

Android debuts as a mobile platform for the product this year.
Mobile consumption of March Madness Live, meanwhile, is primed for another major boost, Turner executives said. The tournament just two years ago predated the arrival of the initial iPad, the first consumer tablet to have a major effect on the market. Now, with a third iPad about to be released and several competing tablets also gaining traction with consumers, overall consumption of March Madness on mobile platforms may approach 50 percent this year. That figure was about 33 percent in 2011.

Also feeding a likely mobile surge is a first-time expansion of the tournament to Android smartphones.

Only a handful of sports entities to date have seen their mobile traffic for any specific event or time period reach similar equality with broadband.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we see it approaching half,” said Matt Hong, Turner Sports senior vice president and general manager. “You’re still going to see significant broadband traffic, particularly that at-work audience the first two days of the tournament. But no doubt, consumption patterns continue to evolve.”
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