As the college basketball tournament known as March Madness begins today, campus IT officials are preparing for what could amount to a huge spike in network traffic. College students watching NCAA Tournament games on CBS’s live online video streaming service have not caused network disruptions in recent years, some campus IT officials told eCampus News–but schools whose basketball squads make it deep into the tournament should be wary of a drastic jump in web traffic on the school’s web site.

CBS broadcasts all 10 days of NCAA Tournament games on its television network and web site for free, drawing nearly 5 million online viewers last year–up from 2 million in 2007. CBS’s newest streaming game features, called March Madness On Demand, include one-click access to online brackets that viewers fill out before the tournament starts, as well as game alerts and higher quality web video.

University IT administrators interviewed by eCampus News this week said die-hard student and faculty fans who watch the games online, using the school’s own bandwidth, have not bogged down the campus network in the past. But as web use becomes more prevalent across the country, relatively unknown schools are seeing web hits double and triple as their basketball teams make headlines and draw millions of online searches.

Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., saw a massive influx of visitors to its web site when the Gonzaga men’s basketball team reached the quarterfinal round in 1999, said Greg Francis, director of Gonzaga’s central computing and networking.

"No one knew where we were or who we were," said Francis, a university IT administrator for 13 years at the 7,000-student campus. "No one even knew how to pronounce our name."

When Gonzaga’s web hits tripled during the tournament, IT officials decided to move the web server off campus to another service provider that could handle the sudden increase.

"Since then, we’ve added more bandwidth, and it hasn’t been an issue," Francis said.

CBS’s on-demand game broadcasts draw a demographic of 25- to 54-year-old men with college degrees and household incomes of more than $75,000, according to the CBS Sports web site. Even during the current recession, CBS executives expect to exceed $20 million in revenue from the online streaming service. CBS made $10 million from the on-demand service last year and $4 million in 2006.

CBS has another online feature that will appeal to college students. While viewers watch the tournament games on their laptops or mobile devices, they can update their Facebook status and keep in touch with fans on the social networking web site.

Kathy Lang, chief information officer at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said the steady increase in students who watch the tournament games online has not slowed the campus’s web connection, although March Madness brought a flood of unexpected hits to the university’s web site earlier this decade.

In 2003, when Marquette made its way to the Final Four in New Orleans, Lang said IT officials upgraded the school’s hardware to handle the new traffic.

For campuses that fear their networks might not support thousands of students watching the games on CBS’s web site, Lang said organizing viewing parties could be a simple solution. If students and faculty are given places to gather and watch the games on TV, Lang said, fewer will watch the tournament online.

"A lot of students [at Marquette] go to the viewing parties" organized by campus officials, she said.

Links:

CBS March Madness On Demand

Marquette University

Gonzaga University