How to really piss off a college basketball fan

One of the stranger rituals of American sports is the country's affection for the annual college basketball championship tournament. Why this country is so obsessive about college basketball and football, when every other college sport is completely ignored, is a mystery that the nation's greatest sociologists and standup comedians have never been able to explain.

But there it is. If your alma mater's basketball team is participating in "March Madness," as we call it, it's mandatory to watch the games on TV. Unless, of course, you have to take your son to a futsal game.

Futsal is a separate story in itself, basically the bastard spawn of soccer (what the rest of the world calls football) and basketball. In the US it's about a million times more obscure than college basketball, but my son likes it and his team had a game scheduled for the exact same time as my college was playing in the tournament. So I did the dad thing and drove him to the game.

But I also did the Silicon Valley dad thing and took my notebook computer with me. The high school where the game was played has a fully open WiFi network, and I had registered to receive a live streaming video feed of the basketball tournament from the CBS television network. Finally, a practical use for Web video!

So I sat down in the gymnasium, started up my notebook, logged into the network, went to the CBS website, and selected my team's game. Excitement building, I clicked on "Watch now," waited a few seconds for the feed to buffer, and...

In case you can't read it, the message said I was "prevented from accessing this game due to local blackout restrictions."


Here is the deal, CBS. If I had access to a TV, do you think I'd be trying to watch your crummy, pixelated, low-res, business card sized video feed? The only people interested in watching online video of a sports event are those who have no access to a television. There is absolutely zero chance of cannibalization of the TV station's audience.

Besides, think about it for a minute. Who are the people most likely to want to watch that feed? People in the school's home town who can't get to a TV. But that's exactly where the game is certain to be blacked out. So CBS has created an incredibly elaborate system to systematically tease and frustrate its most enthusiastic customers. You can't see the game you really care about, but you're welcome to watch the games that are meaningless to you.

The word for this, folks, is "perverse."

I know why CBS did the blackout. Its contracts with local broadcast stations prohibit it from streaming games they're airing. CBS had the same problem with last year's tournament -- meaning they have had more than a year to fix this thing, and failed to do so. Instead, CBS and its local stations are once again missing a great chance to build customer loyalty and develop a nice online business.

I did try out an interesting feature that CBS allowed me to access, called a "glog" (I guess that stands for game blog). It's basically written commentary on the game, streamed live. Unfortunately, if you look closely at the first and last comments below, you'll see that the commentary got caught in a loop and repeated endlessly. I was confused when the teams started running the same plays over and over.

This mess is typical of the foolishness that often happens when old line companies try to deal with the Internet. They spend millions setting up an elaborate technological tour de force but neglect to take care of the basics, like letting fans actually watch the games they want to see, and making sure all the features work.

The lesson: The product you deliver through a website isn't a bunch of HTML and Java code, it's a solution to the problem of a user. Unless all of the elements of that solution line up properly, your product is a failure.

I know CBS's online coverage isn't a total waste; some people do get to some games they want. But if you'd like a taste of what CBS is doing to a lot of fans, check out this message board where fans of Georgetown University tried to figure out how to access the online feed. It's pitiful.

As for me, I was reduced to watching the scoreboard thing you see below, and waiting for it to refresh every 15 seconds or so.

A hundred and sixty years of telecommunication progress, and I'm reduced to watching a basketball game by telegraph.

PS: My son's team lost, although he did score a booming goal from beyond halfcourt. He's always wanted to do that.


Steve said...

One word: Slingbox! Well, and TiVo too. Personally, I don't see the issue with watching this stuff live, unless you have a chance of bumping into someone who spoils the ending... I would've just TiVo'd it and speedwatched it later (in a fraction of the time -- especially useful for baseball). If you had to see it live, then you should just put a Slingbox on your TiVo and you can watch whatever you want from wherever you want.

PS: Slingbox also makes a great way to do remote TiVo tech support; I solved a phone dialing problem for my dad in seconds using his Slingbox instead of having to remotely guide him through the screens over the phone.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks, Steve. You're totally right about Slingbox and TiVo, but that's a pretty ominous message to CBS -- when you don't deliver on the things your customers really want, they'll find other ways to get around you. And some of those ways enable them to cut out the ads.

Anonymous said...

A little background on this: Local television blackouts started because the teams and leagues were afraid that people wouldn't show up for a game if you could see it on tv. For pro sports anyway (and I am assuming the same for college) it is generally apart of the agreement between the league and the tv company. Growing up in Ohio and being tortured by Cleveland sports teams, I remember the local news folks counting ticket sales on Saturday evening. If they sold some 90% of tickets by Sat. night, the home game would be on tv; otherwise it would be blacked out. Road games were always shown. In your case, I am sure your team wasn't "at home" since this is the NCAA tournament so I don't know what CBS' excuse was... outside of stupidity.
Elia Freedman

James said...

Traditional media still don't know how to capitalize on all the distribution possiblities...

Although, Mike, one thing I enjoy quite a bit is watching MLB games on Yahoo! Sports with my S60 phone on 30-sec refresh, while I don't have access to TV. S60 browser is fantastic for that purpose. (You may guess whom I work for.)

Anonymous said...

MM said: (what the rest of the world calls football)...

I think the clue is in the title. In football (as in, "the beautiful game") you use your feet. Not you hands.