Ever since the coronavirus pandemic shut down live sports, TV networks have looked to give fans a steady diet of archival footage and games. But rather than guessing which games fans would be most interested in watching, the Big Ten Network instead gave them that choice directly.
The sports network is asking viewers to vote on social media about which classic Big Ten/NCAA tournament basketball games they want to watch on TV over the next week.
Starting on March, 21, BTN asked fans to vote on Twitter between 32 games from the 2019-2020 season. The 16 winners were scheduled to air March 24 and March 25.
Then BTN will ask fans to vote on classic NCAA basketball tournament games. The catch, naturally, is all the games were won by schools currently belonging to the Big Ten Conference.
The Twitter voting is scheduled to culminate March 28-30, when BTN will ask fans to vote which NCAA Championship Game they want to watch on March 31.
They will have choices. Either Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans vs. Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in 1979, or Maryland defeating Indiana to win their first-ever national championship in 2002.
“You choose the games you want to see. We show the winning games on our air,” tweeted BTN.
“Once we got our breath after the Big Ten Tournament was canceled, and everything was spiraling, we got the team together and asked, ‘Well, what can do?’” Michael Calderon, BTN’s senior vice president of programming and digital media. said. “We are working from home. What can do to make this interactive?”
The ‘you-make-the-call’ consumer strategy accomplishes several objectives at once, Calderon said. Like the rest of the quarantined U.S. population, sports fans feel helpless – inviting them to play ‘Sports Director for Day,’ gives them input into the programming process.
Second, sports fans are dying for something to root for, he said. Inviting them to cheer on their alma mater may not replace the shuttered conference and NCAA tournaments. But the “bracketology” element gives fans a bit of the fix they’re missing from March Madness.
“All the live events have been taken away from us. We’re all concerned about what’s happening in the world. But nobody has anything to root for,” Calderson said. “I think the idea stemmed from that: ‘Let’s provide Big Ten fans with something to root for.’ If you want to see this particular game, vote for it, root for it, and watch it. Tell your friends and spread the word. We’re excited about it.”
The brackets drew over 82,000 votes on Twitter during the first few days online, according to Calderon.
Getting “creative” about content is a must for media companies during the live sports outage, said Joseph Mahan, chairman of the department of sports & recreation management at Temple University’s School of Sports, Tourism and Hospitality Management.
“This seems like a very proactive strategy by the Big Ten Network,” Mahan said. “Given the lack of live sports, particularly during what would have been March Madness, it seems like using social media can only help in bringing eyeballs to their TV network. Even if the relative audience increase is small (the polls are attracting a few thousand votes each), it likely will have a positive effect from a brand image perspective.”
BTN is coming off its most-watched men’s regular-season ever, with viewership growing 12% to an average of 223,749 viewers. The same network team that brainstormed the polling idea is already discussing other ways to fill the sports void, Calderon said.
BTN also wants to subtly remind viewers the conference was enjoying a big season, including three of the network’s top ten regular-season games of all time, before the sports blackout in March.
“We were coming off of an all-time high for a basketball season for us. But we didn’t get to celebrate that properly with a full Big Ten Tournament,” Calderon said. “So we’re celebrating it now.”