Non-Cable Subscribers Will Have to Pay $4 for March Madness Games Online

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Last year, you could watch every NCAA men’s basketball tournament game for free online. This year, it’s going to cost you.

On Thursday, Turner (owned by’s parent company TimeWarner), CBS and the NCAA announced that they would take advantage of the ever-growing popularity of the NCAA men’s tourney and charge non-cable subscribers $3.99 to watch games online, on their tablets or on their mobile phones.

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In the last few years, March Madness games online were completely free and supported by ads. But the model of requiring Internet viewers to pay for traditional television or cable content, especially sports, seems to be growing. For example, watching ESPN online requires a cable subscription, and niche channels like the Big Ten Network also require viewers to log in through their cable provider.

Most viewers who already get TBS, TNT and truTV (which air many of the tournament’s games) will be able to watch the tournament online at no extra cost just by logging in to their cable accounts, but some won’t. According to Turner, about 77 million of the 100 million households who get those channels will be able to watch the games for free, and it appears that Turner hasn’t worked out contracts with the rest of those cable providers to be able to deliver the tourney to every household that gets cable.

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This actually isn’t the first time viewers have had to pay to watch the tourney online. In 2003, a $15 subscription was required to log in to March Madness on Demand. But since 2006, fans have been able to watch games free online. Last year was the first in which every game in its entirety aired on either CBS, TBS, TNT or truTV, and and that strategy boosted viewership 14% during the first weekend, compared to the previous year. But it seems as if the networks realized they were still missing out on some serious revenue streams: Last year, viewers watched 13.7 million hours of streaming tourney video online and on their mobile devices, an increase of 17% from the year before.

Considering the low cost, it’s likely that most basketball fans won’t balk too much at the fee, considering many of us will be chained to our desks for much of the first and second rounds. Plus, most of us got used to being able to watch any game online while at work last year (not to mention enjoying the brilliant “Boss Button”), so don’t expect that $4 to get in the way of shirking our responsibilities at work next month.