March Madness. One of the most watched live sports events of the year, and one of the few that is available online (at least in part) without a cable subscription. In 2012, my wife and I were happy to pay what seemed a ridiculously low fee (something like $5) for complete access to the tournament online. We still had cable at that point, but we were away in VT and not near a TV, so we were happy to be able to stream the games.
Imagine our dismay when, at the very end of a close game, we found out that this year was different. The broadcasters had changed their offering – 4 hrs free streaming of games on Tru TV and TBS. Games on CBS did not count toward the total. Once the 4 hrs expired – in the middle of a busy night of 2nd round action – we were directed to log in to our cable provider.
Unwilling to give up so easily, I thought about how sites track unique users and soon realized that the NCAA’s site was likely tracking me via browser cookies. Remembering that Chrome’s incognito mode does not leave cookies, I opened a new window and voila! – back in business. We went on to watch the rest of the early games with no problem.
At first, this seemed like a ridiculously simple way to defeat broadcaster’s attempts to limit access to content – surely their developers must have thought that someone would try incognito browsing or a proxy server. Thinking about it more, I realized that this might be a variation on the porous paywall strategy that the NYT has successfully implemented – basically forcing users to interact with content via subscription, while accepting that some will find ways to beat the system.
If so, it could be a model for the intersection of live sports and the internet. In allowing viewers to access content for free, broadcasters increase their audience and ad views, which bring in significant revenue for them. Eventually, as the number of cable free households increases, I hope broadcasters will see the sense in allowing consumers to pay “a la carte” for certain sporting events – The World Cup, Champions League, NBA, etc, without having to sign up for cable or an expensive season subscription. After all, most events can already be streamed online if you know where to look. By bringing streamers back into the fold, cable companies would be increasing their audience in the short term, and embracing a different medium of interaction that appeals to younger consumers. Eventually, though cable companies are powerful and entrenched, I believe that the vast openness that is the internet will prevail over attempts to control content. Therefore, those rights holders that figure out a sustainable model that includes internet viewing will win.