March Mayhem

This post is not necessarily about the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament or sports in general. It is about how the internet and webtv is impacting sports and the U.S. culture. March Madness has been a major event for a while now, but the internet has taken it to a completely new level of intrigue and accessibility. It is officially a mid March national  institution.

A few years ago, options at the office for following the start of the tournament were limited. You could check score updates online, listen to games on the radio (broadcast or streaming) or take a long lunch. Last year CBSSports.com and NCAASports.com changed everything by providing good quality live streaming video for free. A quote this past week from the USA Today article helps highlight the magnitude:

Last March, 92% of the viewers that watched games at NCAASports.com did so through work computers, according to Nielsen Online. It’s tough to tell how “March Madness” affects workplace productivity. Employment consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas has made varying estimates since 2002. Last year, it said that NCAA-watching could cost employers as much as $1.7 billion in wasted time. – USA Today

Through the first three days of the tournament CBSSports.com received 4.8 million unique visitors, which represents a 65 percent increase compared to 2008. Another interesting statistic is the nearly half of the video streams are through the high-quality HD option provided through Microsoft’s Silverlight player. Silverlight was also used by NBC for the 2008 Summer Olympics, a relationship that has been extended to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Putting aside network congestion, it is of little consequence how many individuals watched HD video on their office computer this past week. The significance is that there is scalable, reliable technology that allows for HD live streaming of sports games. By connecting a computer with internet access to a HD TV, March Madness fans can watch any live game in its entirety instead of being limited to the feed from their local CBS station. CBS does a fantastic job staggering games and ensuring viewers see the most exciting action, however giving viewers the ability to choose the game they want to watch or more importantly to flip between games showed exactly what is possible with webtv. The picture quality through Silverlight was impressive and the experience was well beyond my expectations. The only limiting factor is the ISPs. I unfortunately experienced buffering issues near the end of the day today that I can only assume I have Time Warner Cable’s throttling policies to thank.

How huge would it be if this could be done for the NFL or NCAA football? I know there are On Demand options through cable and satellite providers, but what if the middle man was cut out and consumers could buy HD On Demand packages that stream over the web directly from leagues? This is where it could all get very interesting because live sports is the final frontier for webtv. Once reliable options become available, there truly will not be a need for cable.

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