Hitting The March Madness Bandwidth Hoop

When the NCAA tips off its annual basketball championship tournament next week, it will mean more migraines than madness for the nation’s employers. For them, hoops mania translates into making employees bandwidth hogs and creating productivity losses that could top more than $1 billion.

Blame it on the Internet and CBS Sports, which is offering free, live streaming video of the first 56 games of the tournament. A significant portion of those games will be on Thursdays and Fridays, where history shows employees will be draining bandwidth and ignoring work as they follow the games.

During last year’s tournament, CBS SportLine.com, the online division of CBS Sports, served more than 19 million streams and recorded more than 5 million visits to the site. CBS claims it was one of the “largest live Internet events ever” and estimates this year’s traffic will top last year’s.

“The NCAAs has become the quintessential Internet sports event,” said John Challenger, the CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based international outsourcing placement agency. “Some of the games are during the workweek and we know 79 million people have access to the Internet at work.”

Challenger’s firm estimates there are 22.9 million working college basketball fans in the United States. If each worker spends approximately 13 minutes per workday online checking the outcome of games, Challenger said productivity losses would be $1.1 billion.

Those numbers, though, are likely very conservative since they do not include workers watching CBS’ March Madness on Demand (MMOD) live streams. According to Alex Riethmiller, spokesperson with SportsLine, the average MMOD viewer last year spent 10 to 15 minutes watching a stream. However, that measures average time on just one stream. Most viewers watched multiple streams in any one visit, changing channels, if you will, frequently.

For systems administrators, it all adds up to bandwidth nightmares.

CBS SportsLine Doubles Bandwidth

SportsLine, on the other hand, is loading up on bandwidth, doubling its 2006 80 gigabits per second (Gbps) order from Akamai to 160 Gbps for this year. Driving the upgrade is not only anticipated customer demand but also SportsLine’s decision to increase the MMOD video player screen by 50 percent from last year’s player and to juice viewers’ streaming bit rate from 400 kilobits per second (Kbps) to 450 Kbps.

Other bandwidth-eating new features include live radio streaming through the MMOD player, including games shown in each viewer’s local CBS market. Blacked-out games will not be shown on the MMOD player, and will only be available via CBS’ television broadcast.

Joe Ferreira, SportLine’s vice president of programming and executive producer of MMOD, said the dramatic increase in bandwidth was necessary. SportLine’s 2006 decision to switch from a $19.95 subscription model to an advertising-supported one proved to be a watershed moment.

“We went from 20,000 subscribers to 1.3 million users registered for MMOD,” he said. “It was a monumental jump. Free takes it to the next level.”

Ferreira said the leap in traffic didn’t surprise him. “When you marry a big-time sporting event with pent-up demand, that’s going to happen,” he said. “For a long time now, people have been looking at convergence, and when MMOD happened, that hit home really big. The advertising community has a thirst for anything that is live and in demand.”

Even with the bandwidth increase, SportsLine is anticipating that at peak load times, not everyone might be able to access the site. To control an anticipated peak in demand Thursday and Friday, access to the MMOD video player will be managed using a “virtual waiting room.” If demand exceeds peak capacity, virtual lines will form.

Few Employers Plan to Block Sites

So where does that leave systems administrators and company executives who have neither the bandwidth, time or inclination to create virtual waiting rooms for employees who are supposedly at work but are watching basketball games on their computers?

Challenger’s advice to employers: get over it and embrace it.

“The lines between personal lives and working lives are blurring,” he said. “Companies rightly figure that many employees are going to be distracted by March Madness, so why not take advantage of the situation to build morale and camaraderie among the staff.”

Challenger said a survey conducted by his company shows only 6 percent of companies plan to take steps to prevent workers from accessing March Madness sites.

“As our survey shows, most employers are not bothered by the potential loss of productivity,” he said. “More and more people are completing office work outside normal business hours. As a result, companies are allowing employees to tend to personal needs during the work day, whether that means [online shopping] or filling out brackets for a March Madness pool.”

As for bandwidth demands, Challenger suggests those companies with limited bandwidth might place televisions in employee lounges and encourage workers to watch the games there.

“By allowing employees to watch the games on a centrally located television, employers could at least keep fewer workers from accessing live streaming video at their desks.”

Let the madness begin.

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