The NCAA and digital video partner Thought Equity Motion are testing whether March Madness fans will want to watch old highlights on the web.

Most people are glad to see March arrive. For some it’s the start of spring and warmer weather; for others, it’s the month-long celebration of college basketball called March Madness. The NCAA has little control over the temperature, but it did turn up the heat for basketball fans last week with the launch of the NCAA Vault, a user-friendly archive of video highlights from March Madness tournaments over the past decade.

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Fans can search for plays by teams, players, or games; or scan highlights of dunks, blocks, or shots. They can share their favorite moments via Twitter or Facebook. The site even has an open application programming interface (API) that allows for the clips to be published on other sites or plugged into apps built by third-party developers.

It’s all possible thanks to the NCAA’s partnership with Thought Equity Motion, which specializes in digitizing video footage and helping the rights-owners to cash in on it. Thought Equity Motion claims to have 10.5 million hours of content under management through partners like the NCAA, NBC News and Paramount Pictures.

Opening up the archive

In July 2009, the NCAA was facing a conundrum. Despite the exuberance around March Madness, the tournament’s website wasn’t getting equal play.

“I noted that ‘We seem to have a lot of visitors come to the site, but they don’t stick around that long’,” explains Greg Weitekamp, director of broadcasting for the NCAA.

Weitekamp mentioned this to Kevin Schaff, CEO of Thought Equity Motion, which has represented the rights to the league’s archive of tournament footage since 2005. “I said, ‘We think it’s an asset that’s been underdeveloped — there’s more that can be done with it.’”

Schaff and his team came back with the idea for the “NCAA Vault,” believing that the league’s archival footage was an underleveraged asset. Prior to the launch of the Vault, fans could only watch a small selection of past tournament games on a CBS site that linked to

“The competitive advantage of sports and news rights is going to come out of the archive,” Schaff says, pointing out the value of rapidly inserting historic footage of relevant events into live broadcasts to provide context.

An offer they couldn’t refuse

Thought Equity Motion was already charged with preserving the NCAA’s footage by digitizing it, and was managing to pull in some revenue by selling memorable games to cable channels like ESPN Classic.

But by breaking the games up into bite-size chunks and assigning each clip a URL, the footage could become even more valuable. Viewers could share clips, bloggers could link to them more easily, and most important for new ad revenue, marketers could advertise against them more easily.

“Dunkin’ Donuts could buy the word ‘dunk’,” Schaff suggests, meaning that any video tagged with that word — presumably because the clip shows a player dunking the ball — could be paired with an ad for the donut purveyor.

Plus, Thought Equity Motion had insight into what footage was most searched for.

“We run algorithms to look at where conversations are, what teams, what games are in demand,” explains Schaff, who compares his model to that of web startup Demand Media. Meanwhile some have questioned Demand Media’s assembly-line approach to churning out content based on algorithms that determine which topics will garner the most traffic and ad revenue.

Finally, there was the reality that the Web is a different medium than broadcast; people don’t want to watch entire games when they already know the final score, but would rather to jump in at the most memorable points.

“We’re embracing the fact that consumers want to consume media on their own time in a way that fits them,” says Thought Equity Motion’s VP of marketing and products, Dan Weiner.

Still early in the game

Thanks to Thought Equity Motion’s technology platform that digitizes and dices video, the company says the NCAA Vault was created at a much lower cost than what the league would have paid to go it alone.

Still, it will be a while before the NCAA knows if the Vault will provide a return on the investment. While it expects site traffic to be high during the tournament, the hope is that viewers will continue to visit year-round.

The NCAA is using its most popular event as a test case, but would eventually like to expand the Vault to include other sports like women’s basketball, and men’s baseball.

But, Weitekamp says, “Nothing like this has ever been done before. We didn’t want to be out there with 10,000 hours of content without the business model proving itself first.”

At press time, no ads have appeared on the Vault, other than banners promoting live streaming of March Madness games on CBS has the rights to the live NCAA games; Thought Equity Motion licenses the non-live content on the NCAA Vault for CBS to sell and receives a cut of the revenue.

The result of this experiment may be even more crucial for Thought Equity Motion, which, having established itself as a source for stock footage, is now increasingly focused on how to syndicate the non-live content in its library to drive ad revenue.

“We have the content partners we want,” says Schaff, adding that the venture-backed company continued to grow during the recent downturn and predicts 50-70% growth in 2010. “But right now, even if you digitize it, video content needs to be broken down and curated to connect to the demand.”

Schaff believes the value of the non-live rights to the NCAA’s footage could be 10% of the live rights. “Access creates demand,” he says.

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