The old trick, of course, was to hide the radio in your jeans and snake the wire up inside your shirt to the ear that faced away from the blackboard. Then, as the lecture went on—U.S. history, perhaps; maybe the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s—you could catch the first game of the NCAA basketball tournament, mentally taking notes not on Calhoun, John C., but Calhoun, Jim.
Now students (and office workers) no longer have to resort to the hidden-radio trick to follow those midday, weekday NCAA tournament games, thanks to CBSSports.com's NCAA March Madness On Demand, which allows users to stream—for free—any tournament game of their choosing, live, to the laptop on which they're supposed to be taking notes or compiling spreadsheets. CBS has thoughtfully included a "boss button" (or teacher button) on its video player, which instantly switches one's screen to a phony PowerPoint presentation. That button was clicked 3.3 million times during the 2010 tournament's first four days, more than half a million more than during the entire '09 tournament. Over that hectic opening weekend this year, more than 6 million unique visitors watched more than 8.7 million hours of live hoops online, a 35% increase from 2009.
If 2010 did not represent the year in which watching live sports online entered the mainstream ("It's a great auxiliary way to watch sporting events, but I don't think it's going to surpass television as the best way to watch," says Sean McManus, the president of CBS News and CBS Sports), it was the year in which the practice was swept up by the mainstream's first currents. The industry leader is ESPN3.com, which currently is available in 65 million households and allows viewers to toggle among up to 20 live events in more than a dozen sports—including, most significantly in 2010, the World Cup, during which some 7.4 million unique visitors watched more than 942 million minutes of action from South Africa. "It was really a watershed event for us," says John Kosner, general manager of ESPN Digital Media, who recalls walking around New York City's Upper West Side and seeing small business owners glued to midday games on their laptops. NBC Sports streamed, among other events, the Winter Olympics (more than 400 hours of live action) and every Sunday Night Football game. Subscribers to DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket can add the To-Go option and watch every game on their computers or mobile devices for $49.95. Subscribers to MLB.tv can do similarly with major league baseball games for a base price of $99.95.
Of course, if, say, fans of the Premier League club Manchester City (or of NFL teams whose local broadcasts have been blacked out) look hard enough—and are tech-savvy enough—they can view every one of their team's games via pirated streams, although those often originate from dubious sources and are of poor quality. "[Piracy is] certainly a problem," says ESPN's Kosner. "The way you solve that is to get a product out that has ubiquitous distribution and is better than what you can get pirated."
Industry expert John Ourand, of SportsBusiness Journal, is certain that while business considerations mean that ubiquity might be years away—cable operators and network affiliates, for example, are somewhat resistant to options that siphon off revenue—one day in the not too distant future, fans will be able to watch any sporting contest, anywhere, on the mobile devices they carry in their pockets, and the experience will be fully customizable. "I believe it's just a matter of time," he says. Then the only challenge for otherwise diligent students will be how to keep from getting too distracted as they follow their brackets.