In March 2011, CBS Sports and Turner Sports changed the landscape of March Madness consumption. The brands took a one-channel product on CBS and blew it out into a four-channel extravaganza spanning CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV. Gone were the years of watching only one NCAA Tournament game at a time.
Over the past decade, CBS Sports and Turner Sports have expanded their platforms well beyond TV, especially in the digital world. Every year since 2011, a little more progress has been made. It’s time to check in on what’s new for 2019 as the Big Dance gets underway.
The Digital Madness
March Madness Live is that app on your phone you download this week every March (or, if you’re like me, you just realized you never deleted it after last year’s tournament). Technically, March Madness Live is not just an app. It is the “exclusive live stream suite of products” managed by Turner Sports in partnership with CBS and the NCAA.
For 2019, March Madness Live has expanded to 17 platforms with two new additions this year: Android TV and Oculus Go. These two platforms join the following in streaming all 67 March Madness games: iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch, Android handset, Android tablet, Amazon Echo family of devices, Amazon Fire tablets, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, Samsung Gear VR, mobile web, Roku players and TV models, desktop web and Xbox One.
“It’s distributed pretty much everywhere you can distribute a signal today,” says CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus.
For traditionalists, or just people on the go, there is still a way to follow the most interesting action without changing the channel or changing the stream. March Madness Live’s “Fast Break” feature, available for the first time in 2018 on the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament, will now be available from Thursday through Sunday on the first weekend. Fast Break provides live streaming whip-around coverage, switching from game to game while providing live look-ins and instant highlights. In a way, this is a modern take on CBS’ classic single-channel coverage, which toggled between games on one home station.
Then, for third year in a row, there’s VR. This year’s main tweak is the addition of Oculus Go as a compatible platform to view 21 selected NCAA Tournament games in virtual reality, including the Final Four and National Championship Game.
“What the reaction from the viewer is, how much viewership it gets, how much usage it gets,” says McManus, when asked how he will judge the VR statistics. “We’ll be watching it very carefully, seeing if we want to expand it. The main broadcast on the four channels is the priority, but it’s experimental to see if it’s something we want to do more of.”
McManus also says two sites will include 4K cameras this year.
Musical Broadcast Chairs
Most of the usual crew is back, with only one new broadcaster being added to on-site teams for the first two rounds. Jim Jackson, who currently commentates for Fox Sports and spent time at the Big Ten Network, will join Brad Nessler, Steve Lavin and Evan Washburn’s team. He will also be part of the First Four cast, with Spero Dedes, Steve Smith and Ros Gold-Onwude. Jackson, who played in the NBA from 1992-2006, was Big Ten Player of the Year twice, in 1991 and 1992, during his three-year career at Ohio State.
The real changes lie in how those familiar faces are configured. Three on-air announcers have been reassigned, with Jamie Erdahl now working with Ian Eagle and Jim Spanarkel; Lisa Byington working with Andrew Catalon and Steve Lappas; and Allie LaForce joining Brian Anderson and Chris Webber. Last year, Erdahl was with Catalon and Lappas; Byington with Anderson and Webber; and LaForce with Eagle and Spanarkel.
The 2019 broadcast teams look like this:
- Jim Nantz / Bill Raftery / Grant Hill // Tracy Wolfson**
- Brian Anderson / Chris Webber // Allie LaForce*
- Ian Eagle / Jim Spanarkel // Jamie Erdahl*
- Kevin Harlan / Reggie Miller / Dan Bonner // Dana Jacobson*
- Brad Nessler / Steve Lavin / Jim Jackson // Evan Washburn
- Spero Dedes / Len Elmore / Steve Smith // Ros Gold-Onwude
- Andrew Catalon / Steve Lappas // Lisa Byington
- Carter Blackburn / Debbie Antonelli // John Schriffen
*Weekend regional team
**Weekend regional and Final Four team
Sports fans will also see a familiar face pop in and out of broadcasts, although, they may not have expected to see him talking basketball. Gene Steratore will serve as CBS Sports and Turner Sports’ rules analyst for the 2019 NCAA Tournament, broadcasting in-studio for the First Four through the Elite Eight. Steratore will then be on-site for the Final in Minneapolis. Steratore served as rules analyst for the NFL on CBS this past fall after 15 years as an NFL official, getting promoted to referee in 2006. Steratore was also an NCAA Basketball official for 22 years before retiring his zebra stripes. Adding to the narrative is that Steratore’s last NFL game was Super Bowl LII, played at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2018, the site of the 2019 Final Four.
“Alexa, How Can I Win My Bracket?”
While untold numbers of websites provide fans the opportunity to fill out a bracket, only CBS Sports and Turner Sports’ Capital One NCAA March Madness Bracket Challenge has the capability to be synced with March Madness Live, allowing fans to follow their bracket and the live games in one virtual location.
Bracket Challenge and March Madness Live are now also allowing fans to communicate with Alexa about the bracket. Starting this year, Alexa has the capability to answer questions about a user’s bracket, their position in a particular group and their National Championship pick.
No-Nonsense Selection Show
From a broadcast standpoint, the biggest change may have already occurred in the Selection Show. After years of releasing the bracket incrementally, and only after heavy analysis to lead off the show, this year’s broadcast had barely gotten underway before the bracket was revealed in its entirety.
McManus says it was a deliberate strategy driven by audience feedback.
“A lot of it was fan reaction,” McManus says of the decision. “I think for two years we did more analysis as we released the brackets and I think that frustrated people. It was an honest effort on our part and on Turner’s part to do that. But the feedback that we got is give us the brackets as quickly as we can. So that’s what we’re going to do.”
Adds Jeff Zucker, Chairman of WarnerMedia, News & Sports: “Yeah, I’m a fan, too. I think we’re all fans. I don’t think there’s any ever any harm in trying. And if you don’t try things, you’ll never evolve. But I think it’s also the sign of understanding that when things don’t necessarily go as well as you would hope, you change it. And so there’s no shame in that.”
Zucker’s responsibilities include WarnerMedia’s new sports division, which includes overseeing Turner Sports, Bleacher Report and AT&T SportsNet. With Turner president David Levy stepping down after 32 years with the company, expect to see Zucker’s name early and often ahead of next year’s updates to the Tournament.