Turner Sports and CBS Sports, which last year became partners in broadcasting the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, have shaken up the way they deliver the tournament’s 67 games via the Internet. Fans will no longer be able to watch all the games on one website unless they cough up $3.99.
Since 2006, legions of at-work hoops junkies or displaced alumni have been able to overindulge on college hoops via March Madness on Demand, CBS’ revolutionary product that brought live sports to the Web in abundance. But this year, CBS and Turner have rebranded MMOD as NCAA March Madness Live.
Fans will still be able to watch all of the games free, as long as they're cable subscribers and don’t mind Web surfing. (CBSSports.com will stream whatever game is airing on CBS in local markets, and viewers need not be cable subscribers.) But during occasions when three or four games are being played at once, users will need to jump to either TNT.com, TBS.com or TruTV.com, where they’ll need to prove they're cable subscribers. Cord-cutters, cord-nevers or folks who simply prefer convenience can opt to pay $3.99 to receive the full March Madness Live package.
Spending $4 may not seem like much, considering that paying customers will also be able to stream games via their mobile devices and tablets. But CBS and Turner risk alienating an audience that has been conditioned to receive every game of the NCAA tournament whenever they want.
Plus, the average cable subscriber is unfamiliar with authenticating to receive Web video from cable networks—and the process is not always simple. Particularly at risk is the massive at-work audience, which may not be able to, or even know how to, access many of the games by authenticating.
It’s likely, then, that MML will take an audience hit, perhaps ending the streak of Web audience records the tournament has set year after year. For example, last year MMOD pulled in 3.8 million daily unique visitors from March 17-18, while fans consumed a total of 13.7 million hours of MMOD video on the Web and mobile platforms.
With numbers like that, MMOD had become one of the few marquee Web video ad buys  in the media industry. As recently as 2009, the tournament was said to bring CBS $30 million in ad sales . (This year, CBS and Turner have signed on AT&T, Capital One and Coke Zero as sponsors.)
But in an era when broadcast networks are pushing cable companies for larger retransmission fees, and where cable companies are pushing concepts like TV Everywhere—which banks on users proving they are customers rather than giving TV content away for free online—it seems that the free MMOD era has come and gone.