CBSSports.com setting the pace for streaming video of live sports... and it's free

Jim O'NeillIt's only 20 minutes up Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard from the University of North Carolina to Duke University, so basketball fans who want to see the last two NCAA Men's Basketball Championship trophies don't have too far to travel, just about 11 miles. But the distance that CBSSports.com has taken online video-from bleeding edge of technology to mainstream adoption-is many times farther.

CBSSports.com said it streamed more than 11.7 million hours of video to some 8.3 million unique visitors, including nearly 600,000 UVs for the championship game that saw Duke beat Butler. All of its metrics were up, considerably, from last year's tournament that ended with North Carolina putting away Michigan State.

And while the State of North Carolina can boast about its 1-2 punch in the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels, CBSSports has plenty to crow about a well.

The tournament, CBSSports.com SVP and GM Jason Kint, told FierceOnlineVideo "has been very profitable, and that all goes to the CBS bottom line." In fact, he said, ad revenue for the tournament was up a solid 20 percent from a year ago to "at least $38.4 million." While the total is just a slice of what CBS brought in overall for March Madness, it's growing at an accelerating pace, and that's something the broadcast side can't claim. Consider that in 2006, CBS estimated its MMoD revenue at $4 million, or just 0.8 percent of the revenue of the broadcast tournament. It increased to 1.7 percent in 2007, 3.5 percent in 2008 and 4.8 percent in 2009.

Of course, any entity that decides to post the entire tournament online--free--is going to get lots of visits, and a lot of hours are going to be streamed. But CBSSports.com also saw a portion of its growth come from a pretty bold decision to allow its player to be embedded anywhere on any website, including Facebook, and its competitors. "We have a product that's very, very good," said Kint. "Why not allow our competitors to showcase it?"

Want online viewers? Keep it simple and accessible

While NBC made a debacle of its live online video coverage of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, for which it has been pilloried for keeping its walled-garden approach intact and making even simple desires, like watching highlights, dependent upon registering, logging in, downloading Silverlight and, well, you get the picture, CBSSports.com took a simpler approach: It decided to make March Madness on Demand as easy to get to and watch as turning the channel on your TV to the Duke-Butler game. To watch any of the games online this year, you simply went to the site and clicked on the game. No registration, no hoops to jump through. That was--and remains--a gold medal play.

And, while Kint declined to talk about NBC's handling of the Games, except to say CBSSports.com likely would have gone in the direction it's chosen for the NCAA tournament, he said the key to getting viewers to watch your online content was to get rid of any hurdle that would cause a potential viewer to turn away.

"What we've tried to do with March Madness on Demand was to keep it as open access as possible," said Kint. "We wanted to eliminate any obstacles to getting to live video. We eliminated registration to watch online in 2008, making it a one-click action to watch live basketball--it's simple. And, our ad model has shown we can support that." Ad breaks during the games were actually the same length as those on broadcast games, Kint said, just with different advertisers. It was a milestone, of sort, having all the holes online filled with ads. Three big sponsors, Coca-Cola, AT&T and Capital One helped as well.

Will streaming online video live kill broadcasting?

Kint said that research has shown that MMoD doesn't cannibalize the broadcast viewership, drawing huge numbers during the first week of the tournament when games generally aren't primetime, and decreasing as games move into evening hours and weekends.

"Sports is one of those things you want to watch on the biggest screen available," he said. "Size matters and so people tend to watch the games on their televisions as we move deeper into the tournament." Kint said CBS sees the live streaming online and to mobile devices as a way to extend its audience at no risk to its broadcast product.

There's more to online video than NCAA basketball... like golf!

Tomorrow, CBSSports kicks off its live coverage of the Masters Tournament, another gem for viewers. It's already got plenty of online video up if you want some highlights from past years. On tap for viewers this year? Live streaming of featured groups almost all day--it starts coverage Thursday at 10 a.m. and is scheduled to continue its coverage until 7:45 p.m.--as well as hours of streaming live from Amen Corner and from holes 15 & 16, interviews with golfers, highlights and more. Kint is (almost) as excited about it as he is about March Madness on Demand.

His one regret?

"I wish Apple had come out with the iPad in time for us to stream to it," he said. "Wouldn't that have been something?"-Jim

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