After last year’s disappointing March Madness cancellation due to COVID-19, the tournament is back for 2021 and fans are getting ready for the Sweet 16. Viewers have also been on the receiving end of a whole new entertainment experience this year. Turner and CBS are providing live coverage of all 67 games from the tournament across TBS, CBS, TNT, and truTV. But in addition, March Madness Live (MML)—the NCAA tournament app produced jointly by Turner and CBS—is sporting a new look and design to encourage more interactivity and engagement with viewers. Notably, MML is now available on a record 18 platforms in order to meet fans where they are—everywhere.
"We still have incredible video experiences for fans and the streaming of all the games in the tournament," said Turner Sports Senior Vice President of Digital Hania Poole. "But we've also put emphasis on this being a second screen and companion type of experience where we really feel like we have a differentiated user experience as it relates to interactivity, how you follow your bracket choices, which game should mean more to you as it relates to the competition if you're a bracket player. And all sorts of other things we have in store for this year."
Poole elaborated that while video is still very much the "core" of the March Madness experience, Turner recognizes that fans are looking for meaningful experiences on digital platforms: "Frankly, it doesn't mean the live game doesn't matter. It just means the people inside those experiences and how they connect with each other are starting to matter even more. And you are going to see social across our digital ecosystem play a larger and large role."
Turner’s plan to build the new MML began to take shape after the 2019 tournament resulted in the largest live audience in history to tune in. To prepare for the redesign, the MML team set out to study viewers and their consumption habits and to uncover the kinds of media experiences they demand and the connected devices they use.
The overhaul of MML was not scheduled to debut until 2021, which offered a silver lining for the team when the pandemic hit in 2020. "Having that to look forward to helped make last year just a little bit easier to swallow. We put so much blood, sweat, and tears into this that to not have the tournament was hard. But it was a good thing to have this to pivot to," said Matthew Mullen, director of product, NCAA, Turner Sports.
Poole added, "Despite all of the remote work and the craziness of this year, this team came together to completely redesign the product experiences, both to modernize our backend technologies and to put a new look and feel on MML products and experiences."
The redesign of MML, which was created to integrate seamlessly on every platform, features an easily navigable Game Center to watch live games, read news and highlights, take quizzes and polls, and watch studio commentary.
In addition to doubling the video quality on connected TV platforms, the MML team also added Google Home for the first time. Poole said Turner is exploring the voice space and is excited to lean into its possibilities.
Old time favorites, such as the bracket challenge game, are also back, as is the humorous "Boss Button." The feature, which was originally designed for an office environment and allowed users to conceal the live video of the games behind a fake excel document, has been updated to reflect the work-from-home scenario and calls up a fake Zoom session with college mascots.
This year also marks the 10th anniversary for Turner and CBS covering the tournament, since last year’s tournament never came to fruition. "Nothing better to celebrate [our anniversary] than with a completely redesigned beautiful product experience," said Poole.
Mullen also remarked, "We're excited to see how [the new MML] performs and to see how this may drive a different style of live video engagement."