Last season, watching March Madness was a breeze: you could drop a few bucks and have streaming goodness across your computer and every mobile device. This year? No such luck. You get free streaming on your mobile device and computer... but the app you use to do so only works if you're a registered cable user and sign up for an arcane, cumbersome service called Watch TV Everywhere. The worst news: for CBS, Turner, and the NCAA, this plan has been a success. For the first four days of games, live streaming was actually up 200 percent over last year in terms of the number of hours streamed. What does that mean? Well, if you're part of the growing movement of cord-cutters — people eschewing paid cable-TV service for an aggregated collection of services like Netflix and Hulu Plus — and you also happen to be a sports fan, you're going to face some tough choices. And soon.
This strategy originated with NBC's summer-of-2012 Olympics coverage. NBC streamed the London games live online through its website, but only if you could authenticate with the aforementioned service. If you're a subscriber of one of the larger cable companies, it was a relatively easy process. Not so much if your cable provider is smaller and locally-owned. Regardless, the Watch TV Everywhere signup experience is so bare-bones and lacking — there's no support system, neither by email nor phone, should you run into technical issues — that its very existence is off-putting from the get-go.
Still, people want their sports. Actually, they need their sports, as these growth numbers indicate. And CBS and Turner (and the NCAA, by extension) are willing to tie their apps to cable TV because cable TV is their gravy train. Go to that link and look at how much you — and everyone else who subscribes to cable, even if they think sports are silly childish distractions for meatheads — are giving to sports leagues through cable. As pseudo-monopolies, cable providers make a lot of money from fans who have no other way to see games and leagues/networks who have no other way to reach an audience. That might change in the future if a la carte cable subscription plans enter the marketplace, but for now, sadly, the NCAA's decision not to circumvent Big Cable is a very defensible one.
Which is too bad, because the other major sporting event of the week — MLB Opening Day — reminds us what good can come of a league developing its own direct channel to fans. If the March Madness cable TV/authentication vortex-of-dumb is one end of the spectrum, the MLB At Bat app lies at the other far end. It's won all kinds of awards and is the top-selling sports app in mobile history. It's also easy to use, helpfully intuitive and customizable, and continually getting better. (Among this year's newest features? More than 60 classic games available for unlimited streaming.) And MLB has still managed to make money from it. All-platform access to the basic service costs $20. Pony up for the full $130 Premium package and you get near-complete video and audio across every device you own. It's an amazing offering and customers (including this writer) are more than happy to hand over their money every year. And while the auto-renew terms are obtuse and MLB's blackout rules continue to defy all kinds of logic — primarily that in-market fans can't watch their home teams on the app — it's the standard-bearer for what sports apps could (and should) be: everything you want for one upfront cost and no confusion.
CBS, Turner, and the NCAA decided not to play that way. And the year-on-year jump in viewership they earned for this decision, sadly, may usher in some kind of chilling effect on apps that veer toward the At Bat model. MLB could decide it's more valuable to protect TV ratings than to continue promoting At Bat, or sell only a bastardized version of the app tied to cable authentication. They might even only offer it to the 71 million cable subscribers that get MLB Network.
The March Madness situation isn't going to get any better. The Madness app — the one you need a cable-TV subscription to use — is released not through CBS or the NCAA itself, but through Turner Sports. And where will the tournament championship game most likely air next season? Not on CBS but either TBS or TNT, a.k.a. Turner Sports cable networks. The college basketball world is headed toward making cable an even more-critical component of their online strategy. We can only hope that other sports don't follow.