March Madness online traffic declines, thanks to pay wall

Just like in previous years, the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was once again streamed live online. But a few things were different for this year’s March Madness on Demand: For one thing, this was the first time users had to pay for access — or prove that they were pay TV subscribers. And as a result, it was also the first time, since CBS Sports (s CBS) began streaming the tournament many years ago, that March Madness online saw a decline in the number of unique visitors.
Viewers who wanted to tune in to the tournament were asked to pay a one-time fee of $3.99, which gave them access to all 67 March Madness games online at and through free iOS (s AAPL) and Android (s GOOG) apps. They could watch games for free at if the games were being broadcast on CBS. Or, if they were subscribers to certain participating cable, satellite or IPTV providers, they could authenticate and watch games through TNT, TBS and TruTV websites.
The result was a drop in unique users during March Madness on the NCAA website: According to Multichannel News, traffic fell 6 percent year-over-year, to 51.6 million visits over the course of the tournament. The NCAA website averaged 1.1 million daily unique visitors, which was down 10 percent from the year before. Mobile traffic fared somewhat better, down just one percent versus the previous year.
There’s no big surprise here, but the key lesson from this year’s March Madness on Demand is probably worth pointing out: When you put content behind a pay wall, people are less likely to actually sign in and access it.
That said, there are some positive signs to come out of this year’s numbers: The truth is, a 6 percent decline isn’t that bad, considering that Turner, (s TWX) CBS and the NCAA were trying to either monetize or authenticate all access to the tournament this year. And the traffic numbers apparently don’t reflect those of all Turner’s other sites, or traffic that went to cable sites like Comcast’s (s CMCSA) Xfinity TV.
Also, while there are no revenue numbers available, charging $3.99 upfront for access could potentially be more profitable than CBS’ previous March Madness on Demand efforts, which were primarily monetized through ads.
Finally, getting viewers to authenticate with TV Everywhere services through tentpole events like March Madness is one way to nudge them into using the services. And doing that is one step closer to showing them how valuable TV Everywhere can be, once you use it.