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March Madness: How Mobile and Social are Changing the Game


It’s that time of the year again. The opening rounds of the NCAA Men’s D1 Basketball Tournament are responsible for interoffice gambling, gut-wrenching defeats and a massive drop-off in work productivity. But March Madness also offers valuable insight into how major sports events are consumed by fans, particularly in regards to the effects of mobile and social on the game viewing experience.

The proliferation of mobile devices and social media usage has dramatically affected the way fans interact with and watch their favorite teams and athletes perform. This year’s NCAA tournament will find fans group-messaging by phone and reviewing their brackets on their laptop, all while watching the game at a sports bar. They will “check in” to the Final Four on Foursquare to unlock a badge, “Like” their favorite team’s Facebook page to show pride and even “trash tweet” some of the tournament’s players on Twitter. As social feeds and text messages continuously interrupt fans, networks and sponsors must fight and offer incremental value to keep the attention of their fickle viewers.

This can be a troublesome and confusing time for those looking to protect multi-year / multi-billion dollar broadcasting deals, who may be fearful to extend live streaming beyond broadcast television. However, CBS Sports and the NCAA have proven that making live broadcasts of major sporting events widely available via mobile devices and social media channels will not cannibalize your audience. In fact, it will likely drive more views, more engagement, and ultimately more revenue.

Access for Everyone
CBS is committed to making the NCAA Tournament available to anyone, anywhere for free. Rather than restrict live games to only appear on broadcast TV, March Madness on Demand (MMOD) allows fans to view every game on the web, iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. As a result, no other live sporting event comes close in terms of audience reach or time spent viewing online.

This open approach has led to tremendous success with both viewers and advertisers. In 2009, MMOD garnered 8.6 million total hours of live streaming video and audio, while pocketing an additional $30 million in online ad revenue. Last year saw a 36% growth in total viewing hours with 11.7 million and generated $37 million in online ad sales. All the while, broadcast figures have continued to grow steadily.

Credit CBS with realizing its online audience does not detract from its broadcast audience. Online and mobile viewers have proven additive as they tune in primarily during work hours and times when they are not able to get to a TV. During primetime hours, broadcast numbers dominate.

By making games available via web and mobile, it has only increased viewership. The constant access allows fans to stay connected and engaged with the action, which in turn motivates the socially-inclined to share emotional experiences related to March Madness with friends via text messages, status updates, tweets, or good old-fashioned word of mouth. So when your co-worker catches the latest buzzer beater live, he’s going to let you know about it at the office water cooler, or the digital equivalent (Facebook or Twitter).

Sports Fans are Social
It’s no surprise that social media will play a prominent role in March Madness, as was the case last year and is with any major sporting event these days. Research shows nearly one in four (23%) online Americans will use social media to follow the NCAA Tournament this year, according to a survey from IMRE Sports.

Brands are not so much interested in the fact that fans will use social media this March, but more so in which platforms and exactly how they plan to use it. These are the insights that will help shape marketing and advertising budgets over the next few years.

Of the 23% of online Americans who plan to use social media to follow March Madness, the research study revealed the following:

  • 50% will use social networking sites
  • 31% will specifically utilize YouTube
  • 27% will utilize a mobile application

Among those planning to use social media to follow the tournament, 62% will use it specifically to check the scores and 44% will use it to watch the games.

The survey also revealed that Facebook is the most popular social media channel for men’s college basketball fans to follow and interact with their favorite teams and players during the regular season. The Kansas Basketball Facebook page currently has over 80,000 “Likes” or fans, more than eight NBA teams. Additionally, the NCAA March Madness Facebook page has accumulated over 125,000 “Likes” and continues to grow rapidly.

These numbers indicate Facebook is becoming the “de facto” online destination for fan activity and conversation related to the NCAA Tournament and it should come as no surprise that brands have taken notice. K-Swiss partnered with Yahoo! Sports for its March Madness “Tournageddon” Brackett Challenge this year. The social media promotion spans across several platforms and is hosted by the larger-than-life HBO character, Kenny Powers, who has amassed over 200k Twitter followers and almost 1 million Facebook “Likes”.
This is just one example. Look for dozens of other corporate brands to “fish where the fish are” and try to catch a few new customers by tapping into the passion that March Madness evokes from its viewers.

What Does All This Mean?
When it comes to watching sports nothing replaces the live “in-stadium” experience, and fans will choose a 50-inch HD Plasma with surround sound any day of the week over an iPhone or laptop. Content owners understand that sports fans look to supplement their viewing experience, and not replace it, with mobile phones, laptops and tablets.

Advances in technology and social media have allowed networks and sponsors to engage fans far beyond the game itself. For example, MMOD offers fans countless hours of highlights, pre-game analysis, special camera replays and other unique content that simply cannot be broadcast on mainstream channels. This in turn feeds the digital fan’s desire for content and access that he/she can share via email, social media, text messaging and other activities inherent to these devices they use to compliment the viewing experience.

But all aside, it’s important not to forget the most important part of a major sporting event like March Madness, the Olympics or the World Cup is the live action itself. The cool behind-the-scenes footage and exclusive Twitter updates pale in comparison. So when and where fans cannot access the action on TV, they should be able to access it on the devices they carry with them 90% of the day. And more importantly, content and rights owners should understand this will only increase total viewership.

The NCAA Tournament and MMOD have proven that free content, available to anyone will not detract from the broadcast, but rather add value and views. Look to see more availability of major sports events as leagues, networks and advertisers grow more confident that this won’t eat into the primetime broadcast that pays the bills.

Steve Cobb and the social marketing agency he co-founded, Activ8Social, are at the forefront of sports marketing and social media. Steve led the planning and execution of several groundbreaking sponsor activations, featuring athletes such as Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics and Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints, that leveraged social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Stickybits to create real world fan experiences. His work has been featured on ESPN.com, Mashable, and InsideFacebook. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Cobb

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