By Jon Krawczynski
AP Basketball Writer
Tensions were high and hearts were heavy in a conference room on Thursday as attorney Rich Ruohonen sat by a family’s side during a mediation session in a multimillion-dollar wrongful death case.
The 11-hour day in included frank and specific discussion about the death of a loved one, and the cold process of establishing compensation for the incident. When the weight of the proceedings in Minneapolis seemed to be crushing the family, Ruohonen had an idea to lighten the atmosphere for a room full of Golden Gophers fans.
“I said, ‘Well the game’s starting and I can get it up on my phone,'” Ruohonen said, referring to Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament opener against Middle Tennessee State. “So I threw it on my phone and we were watching the game.”
While the specifics of Ruohonen’s experience may be unique, the influx of March Madness into the working world certainly is not. The tourney isn’t just for television anymore.
With so many people not able to sit in front of their flat screens for the day games during the first two days of action, being able to stream games and access content on laptops , smart phones and tablets has become a major endeavor for Turner Sports and CBS.
Mark Johnson, senior vice president of Turner Sports Digital, calls the NCAA Tournament the company’s “crown jewel.” Turner Sports Digital also sees significant consumption for its NBA products, especially during the playoffs. But Johnson says the fact that so much of the action in the first two frenetic days occurs while the majority of Americans are at work sets March Madness apart.
“This event has become a cultural event for the entire country, especially this Thursday and Friday,” Johnson said. “It kind of transcends the world of sports.”
A “Boss Button” on the NCAA Tournament streams allows watchers to quickly flip to a screen filled with images from a stock PowerPoint presentation.
Turner Sports has overseen the digital production of the NCAA Tournament for seven years. Last year, people spent 18.1 million hours consuming video via NCAA March Madness Live, the app that delivers content including game feeds, scores and bracket contests to mobile devices and through the internet, the company said. That was a record number for Turner Digital and 2 percent higher than 2015.
“We’ve definitely seen, from our first to our seventh, this transition to digital and more digital platforms,” Johnson said. “Interestingly enough, the one constant is this Thursday and Friday of the first round, we have so many people at work that want to consume this content and may not be in front of or near a TV. So we give them the opportunity to pull up the games, the scores, follow the bracket, all of that from multiple devices.”
The digital audience has grown dramatically over each of Turner Sports’ seven years, from 2.6 million total viewers in 2012 to 3.7 million last year.
Just on Thursday, NCAA March Madness Live garnered 29 million live video starts, a 19 percent increase from last year. It also set a record for the most concurrent streams at 2:15 p.m. Eastern, coinciding with the tense finish between Notre Dame and Princeton.
The fifth-seeded Gophers tipped off against Middle Tennessee State at 3 p.m. Central, right in the thick of a long and difficult day for Ruohonen and his clients. He forgot his tablet at home, so the group gathered around his phone in between meetings with the mediator.
“You’re talking about the case and there’s some big numbers going back and forth,” he said. “You have to talk about some really horrific details of what happened in the case, too. It let people kind of relax a little bit. … It’s just so emotional when you’re talking about someone’s death. It really helped relax the atmosphere. It was actually kind of cool.”
Chris Nelson, the director of sales and marketing for Dallas-based FellowshipOne, a company that helps local churches with computer software, said employees have huddled around phones, tablets and computers to watch the action in the office.
Nelson said that streaming the games at the office has “fostered employee engagement and helped build community across teams” through a bracket challenge launched by FellowshipOne’s parent company.
“This is the Super Bowl of basketball and it just happens to fall on a workday, unlike the Super Bowl,” Johnson said. “So I would love to see more and more companies, CEOs embrace it with the college flair of getting people to wear their college colors and fill out a bracket and build on it.”