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Mobile March Madness a slam dunk for NCAA basketball fans

I’m almost positive that Friday afternoon, there will be some smooth operator in my journalism class at Neumann University in suburban Philadelphia who will be mesmerized by his iPad or smart phone, thinking I’m not sharp enough to figure out that he’s tuned in to the NCAA tournament. Either that, or he doesn’t care what I think.

You know what? I won’t blame him one bit.

For the second straight year, the NCAA and its broadcast partners – CBS and Turner – have done the right thing and made college sports’ premier event available to America in as many ways as possible. Rather than adhering to the decades-old strategy of telling viewers, “You’ll get what we give you and like it!”, the NCAA has opened the floodgates and given us the freedom to watch the games we want, not the ones it and CBS (Turner didn’t come aboard until last season) deemed appropriate for us.

Had the sole change to the NCAA tourney presentation been the diffusing of games across four different channels (CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV) that would have been reason for great celebration among hoops fans. But the NCAA went further by offering the games to anyone with a mobile device. It was great when we could watch tourney basketball on our computers (the “Boss Button” that produced a fake spreadsheet in the event of a supervisor sighting was inspired), but this was even better. Now, fans could check out the action wherever they were, so long as there was a strong enough mobile signal in the area. They could watch in cars, doctor’s office waiting rooms, and yes, classrooms. If this had been around when I was in high school and college, I would have led the nation in detentions and my GPA would have looked like the police-car pileup in The Blues Brothers.

Last March, the mobile Madness was free and all rejoiced. But there is some grousing this year, as full access costs $3.99. Believe it or not, the complaints aren’t so much from viewers, who are used to paying monthly Netflix fees and Hulu premiums to watch their shows, but from industry analysts. They are upset that people who pay for cable TV actually bear a higher cost than those who merely choose the mobile option. If you pay a cable bill – which is necessary to authenticate yourself for “free” computer viewing – your tab is much higher than the $3.99 that someone must shell out for mobile access.

That’s understandable, to a point. Most people who will purchase the $3.99 service are devoted hoopheads who already watch plenty of ball on television, a habit that requires a cable subscription. It’s unlikely casual fans will be interested in the March Madness Live app. That means many people – like yours truly – will double up. They’ll pay their cable bill to get Turner and CBS HD access while also spending the four bucks for the chance to watch everywhere else.

The big story here is the growing understanding by broadcast entities that bringing content to as many people as possible in as many ways as can be imagined is the smart way to go. Last year, early-round games drew as many as three million unique users a day. Since the mobile function can control viewers’ behavior by forcing them to view ads every time they switch to another game (if you watch at home, you can skip around and avoid most commercials), CBS and Turner can promise sponsors their messages will be seen.

The benefit for fans is obvious. By making it all available, CBS and Turner are freeing us from the previous constraints they imposed. At a time when tremendous amounts of other content are available, this is a strong move forward and an acknowledgement that the traditional delivery methods for sports are being replaced with better options for an increasingly mobile society.

The key now is to keep improving the quality of the product. Last year, there were some big problems with the stream, which froze and tiled in many areas. With the growth of more powerful WiFi and 3G networks, the video quality should be higher, and the glitches should be minimal. Or at least we hope they are.

Another interesting piece of the March Madness Live puzzle is the social media aspect. The NCAA has partnered with GetGlue to allow users to check in, enter contests and communicate with other fans. And a sponsored “Social Arena” charts Twitter activity and provides other opportunities for interaction. While those are mere adjuncts to the action on the court, they do heighten the experience and allow people to get more involved in the process, which could build viewer loyalty. That will come in handy when the NCAA, CBS and Turner charge $5.99 next year. (Just a hunch.)

The NCAA tournament defines the month of March, and the decision to make it as available as possible was a strong one. We can expect the costs to keep rising, and more ads to appear, but that’s the way of the broadcast world. Those who remember the frustration of being held hostage by CBS and forced to watch early-round games in which they had little interest are delighted that all the content has been made available. And as technology grows, we’ll be able to enjoy all of it more ways.

Including in my class.

I just hope they let me watch, too.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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