So how’s this year’s NCAA tournament performing on the Web? Only CBS and Turner know for sure.
Earlier in the week, Turner released Web numbers for this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament which looked pretty solid, all things considered. The company revealed that an average of 2 million hoops fans logged onto NCAA.com and the various Web outlets carrying live games from March 11 through March 18—down just 2 percent versus last year. The tournament’s mobile numbers were similarly in line with last year.
That’s not too shabby, considering that Turner and CBS radically changed the way that the tournament was offered to fans on the Web this year. Instead of streaming all the games for free, fans either had to pay $3.99 or prove that they pay for cable if they wanted to watch games on TBS.com, TNT.com or TruTV.com.
But as it turns out Turner and CBS are either unable or unwilling to provide unique viewership numbers for the games as they have in the past—either for the first few days of the event (where at-work viewership typically peaks as fans watch their NCAA brackets go bust) or for the tournament in its entirety. The 2 million figure provided by Turner is a one-week average of visitors to NCAA.com, not the number of actual viewers of the live games.
Last year, Turner and CBS said that the NCAAs attracted a daily audience of 3.8 million on March 17 and March 18, the hoops-laden first few days of the 2011 tournament. While there is no comparable numbers for those days, it seems safe to assume that based on the average of 2 million unique users Turner reported for March 11 through March 18 (which contained the first two days of the 2012), the tournament indicates that there was steep falloff this year in online viewership.
Plus, Turner and CBS say there are no plans to release total unique Web viewership of this year’s tournament—ever. In previous years, CBS was quick to crow about the number of fans logging on to stream the free live games (which are ad-supported by the way) because they were constantly setting records. It’s probably a safe bet that no records will be set this year, given the dual introduction of a pay model and a complicated authentication hurdle for fans. As recently as 2010, CBS was projecting that 10 million fans would stream at least part of the hoops fest on the Web at some point.
The lack of clarity on the size of this year’s audience is in many ways illuminating. For all of the Web’s inherent ability to track every little thing users do, TV still buries the Internet when it comes to delivering audience data for live events.
One would think a third party would be able to provide some sense of how Turner and CBS’ webcasting of the NCAAs (which conclude on Monday) are faring. But comScore doesn’t have that data either. The best comScore can offer is very high level: on the first Thursday of this year’s tournament, traffic to the entire sports category jumped 79 percent versus the previous three Thursdays. Some of that jump can be attributed to fans streaming live games—but who knows? Only Turner and CBS.