Dear Pro Sports Leagues: Can I Watch The Game Please?

from the and-make-it-easy dept

In Mike’s latest annual New Year’s message about innovation and opportunity, he mentioned how technology is allowing the masses to say “no” to impediments set down by those seeking to control:

“The key element this year: the power of large groups of people to make use of the technology to start to say, “No!” to those who have sought to hold back progress.”

A heady concept, but one which I think will only prevail as technology marches forward. That said, I had a slightly different take as a result of a personal story that happened on Christmas Day. Like many of you, I made the trek with my girlfriend to my parent’s house to exchange gifts, eat too much food, and sit around with my family and friends talking as the television sat in the background displaying football and basketball. As the night progressed, the food cooled, the board games became boring, and the way my family slings around red wine resulted in the urge to go home early in the evening. Since my girlfriend was kind enough to drive us home (sober, of course), I was free to do what I wanted in the passenger seat.

And what I wanted to do was watch sports. The tail end of the Bulls game was still on. The Bears game would shortly follow. Sports on radio never did much for me. I wanted to watch. So I yanked out my smart phone and checked out the NBA site, the NFL site, and the sites of our local television stations. What I found was what I expected: the local stations didn’t offer any streaming of the games, but the NBA and NFL have their versions of mobile streaming packages which generally start right around the $50/season mark. This gets you access to their respective broadcasts (not the local ones).

Here’s my question: why is any of this necessary? With that same smart phone, I could have gone to one of dozens of websites (evil, evil websites) that would simply stream the games I wanted directly to my device for free. More to the point, they’d stream the local broadcast that I wanted, complete with commercials. Why wouldn’t the major sports leagues do the same thing? If advertising is still the major money-maker for professional sports (and, along with merchandise, it is), why wouldn’t they want to increase their reach by offering their own free advertisement-laden stream? Coupled with location identifiers, I’d think the leagues could partner with local broadcasters to make sure that people were getting the same geographical broadcast they’d get watching at home. Again, the same commercials can be in place, so what’s lost? Why charge me $50 a season to watch the game on my phone or tablet, but not levy that same charge for watching on my television? It’s the ads that matter, isn’t it?

It seems I’m not the only one with this kind of experience, either. VC Fred Wilson relates a similar tale, touching on the additional idiocy of navigating local blackouts of games with many of these league packages, all in the name of protecting the same local broadcasters whose numbers could be boosted by offering free streams of the game:

“Last night we were turned into “pirates” as the entertainment industry likes to call us. As 2011 turned into 2012, the executives at Time Warner Cable and MSG Network were unable to make a deal to keep MSG on Time Warner Cable. My son was fuming and so was I.”

But he wasn’t fuming for long, as helpful Twitter followers showed him a plethora of sites where he could get the stream he wanted, for free, with none of that viewership resulting in revenue for the league or the broadcaster. Which is a shame, because if they wanted to, everyone could be making money off this stuff while enhancing the fan’s experience with a better quality stream.

And so we get back to the start of this piece, in contrast to Mike’s message of masses saying “no” to those who impede technological progress. Because in my case, driving home that blustery Christmas night, with only thoughts of Derrick Rose and Brian Urlacher in my head, I felt no urge to say “no”. I only recognized one sentiment as I glanced over the league’s packages for streaming and then turned to one of the evil, horrible, death-enducing sites that gave me the stream I wanted just in time to see Derrick Rose drive the lane and score the winning layup to beat the Lakers: I don’t need their packages.

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Comments on “Dear Pro Sports Leagues: Can I Watch The Game Please?”

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acslawarecrooks says:

Piracy is a business decision

Piracy is a business desision by the major media companies, if it wasnt then they would have provided what the public want at the price the public would pay. They have had many people better qualified than me to suggest business models for them and have rejected every one. I think the media companies have made a concious decision not to complete with Piracy and blame them for their “problems” Why couldnt the AA’s provide a site with all the music, films and other media that people want and charge a small flat rate for people to download, they could then COLLECT that revinue and pass it on the owners of the copywrite themselves.

ken (profile) says:

Local sports blackouts have always irritated me because so often it was the local community that put up the money to build the stadium in the first place so it is really the leagues telling the community that supports them to screw you.

The leagues worry that showing a local game on TV will cause people to not buy tickets for the game which is total bunk. The two events are a completely different experience. It’s just like theaters who worry that releasing a movie on video at the same time as the theatrical release will cut into movie attendance which is also total bunk because they are two completely different experiences.

John Doe says:

Re: Re:

I don’t understand local blackouts either. Many people just simply can’t or won’t afford to go to live sports (or concerts). So if you want them as a customer, you have to give it to them in their homes. The ones who do go to live games/shows actually seem to prefer it to sitting at home. Just look at all the fans packed into stadiums in freezing weather. They could be in a warm home, watching on an HDTV with surround sound, drinking $6 6-packs instead of $6 beers. But instead they are packing the stadiums. So what they need to realized is there are 2 types of customers and tailor an experience for both of them.

Anonymous Coward says:

But Tim, football wouldn’t exist if the NFL couldn’t extort large sums of cash from people like this!

Imagine how much money the NFL would lose if they couldn’t charge every cable subscriber a couple of dollars a month, even the ones with zero interest in watching football! Those mean cable companies tried to stand up for all the football haters who want cheaper cable bills, so the NFL had to say NO and stop their fans from watching the games! That way the cable companies will be forced to give in, and pay the NFL more, and raise everyone’s cable bill again!

And not charge people for watching football online! That’s crazy! The NFL can extort millions of dollars from TV channels like CBS/NBC/Fox/etc that show football games, so course it should be free for you on the TV! They already paid for it for you! But who’s there to extort millions of dollars from when you post the game on the Internet! That’s piracy! Until someone pays the ransom… err, ‘broadcasting fees’ of several million dollars to the NFL that is. Sure they could ‘extort’ those millions of dollars from the people who pay for their ads to run during the football games, but then the NFL would have to charge them double the price, and the ad people say no way to that!

And lastly the blackouts when not all the tickets are sold, that’s a vitally important thing for the NFL to make money! You see, despite what the NFL pretends, people don’t really enjoy watching football games from the stands that much, but the NFL NEEDS to sell those tickets at outrageous prices in order to feed their families! Most NFL people would only make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year without the ticket sale revenue, you try to feed a family of 2 (yourself and a spouse) on that kind of money! So in order to sell their tickets they have to blackmail football fans like you into buying the tickets!

Won’t the NFL lose even more money if they stop local fans like you from viewing the games online? Sure, short term, but next time you’ll know to listen to their blackmail and buy up tickets for the local game! That will more then make up for the lost revenue long term!

John Doe says:

It's like the neighbor kid who owns the only basketball

You will play on his terms, the way he wants, when he wants or he will take his ball and go home. Some people are control freaks and lets be realistic, greed is at the heart of it. Because of this greed, you would think they would find ways to get it everywhere in order to make more money. But their control freak nature tells them that control is the only way to feed the greed.

SD says:

Opportunity for stings

If they went with free streams and used the Silverlight platform (like Netflix, NBC Sports – Olympic Games, etc) they could set up their player to receive a command to display a unique ID on top of the video in random places that can be referenced back to the viewer’s IP address.

When someone rebroadcasts a stream via a screencap program, all the network would have to do is send out the command during the game and see the IDs appear instantly on the unauthorized streams. A free stream is low hanging fruit so you can bet some people would easily be caught by this. They could kill the stream for that individual user and then hit them with a lawsuit or criminal charges. They could later prop up those cases in a PR campaign.

SD says:

Re: Re: Opportunity for stings

Well it’s possible to add a unique frame in any video stream server-side with an ID on top but a client-based solution would be more cost effective. Another “problem” content industries would have with an open streaming format is that it would conflict with their ideas about charging for permanent copies. I’m not a supporter of DRM because there’s no value added to the consumer and on the business side of things it’s pretty stupid since the decryption keys are stored in memory it can always be cracked somehow. Or if a DRM system hasn’t been cracked yet, people can simply use screencap hardware or software to save the stream for personal use. I’m also not a supporter of Silverlight. I’m just hypothesizing that what they’d probably decide to use anyway can be adapted to catch some people who rebroadcast.

Chris ODonnell (profile) says:

I’ve wondered the same thing about EPSN3. ESPN generally streams every game that they broadcast, which is nice. But they generally only have 2 or 3 commercials per game, so I end up seeing the same commercial 10 times. Plus, I get to look at the ESPN logo while in spot that I assume is reserved for a local commercial? I don’t understand why they don’t just stream the same commercials that are on TV.

Are they selling the ad time for streaming separately?

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

Not just sports

I had an experience with SYFY this past year over a very similar situation. My wife and I love Eureka and Warehouse 13 and although we don’t have cable, we watched all the previous seasons on Hulu and/or The first few seasons of the shows had episodes available for online viewing one week after the first airing. So it wasn’t too bad and we didn’t have a problem with that. This past year, all that changed.

The first two episodes of each shows as available 1 week after airing, but every other episode after that had a 2 month wait for online streaming. That was insane. So I wrote an article about it on my personal blog and it caught the SyFy twitter account’s attention:

Turns out that SyFy just couldn’t get it through their thick head that people don’t like artificial viewing windows, especially when such windows are as insane as a 2 month gap. People complained when Fox switched to a 8 day window. I am surprised that the 2 month window didn’t get SyFy more flack.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not just sports

Quoting your blog post in order to make a broader point:

“These companies […] see their customers not as fans, but as an enemy who must be kept in check.”

I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I think you (and Tim, and the guy from VC) are proceeding from a false assumption.

We (consumers, movie goers, TV show/sports fans) are not the customers of the companies that produce these things. The advertisers are the true customers, we (or perhaps more specifically, our minds) are the product that is actually being sold.

Taken in that light, the behavior of the major sports leagues, networks, and movie companies is a bit more understandable (if not agreeable) — they are simply trying to improve the quality of the product they are selling, by _not_ showing ads to people who are smart enough to not actually be influenced by any of the the advertisements.

SD says:

If advertising is still the major money-maker for professional sports (and, along with merchandise, it is), why wouldn’t they want to increase their reach by offering their own free advertisement-laden stream?

Online broadcasts and television broadcasts would be in competition for the same eyeballs as they are now in other sectors. Legacy players don’t want to change especially if online ads don’t pay them as much(they don’t… yet). The leagues, broadcast networks and probably the players unions will push back against the internet as long as they keep getting record profits. If television continues to decline they might be forced to stream someday or mess with the internet before that can happen by lobbying Congress to pass laws like PIPA or SOPA.

zaven (profile) says:

Streams with no commercials

The other funny thing not mentioned. There’s an app for the iPhone called WatchESPN. It does exactly what it sounds like, it streams the ESPN family of channels (the live broadcasts) if you have an account with a participating cable company.

The funny thing is it actually does not show commercials, it just streams a message saying “There’s a commercial in progress. We’ll be right back”

I find this odd since as the viewer, I’d be perfectly fine with having the TV commercials while I’m watching the ESPN stream.

el_segfaulto (profile) says:

Re: Streams with no commercials

The problem (and please correct me if I’m wrong) is that in order to get WatchESPN you have to currently subscribe to ESPN through a very specific cable provider. My ISP pays for ESPN3 and it is kinda nice to be able to watch some sports on the go (via my home server and VPN) but for the vast majority of us it isn’t an option. And I would give my eye-teeth for FiOS in my area.

Live sports is the holy grail of cable cutters. I will likely never have cable again, and until they get their act together and sell a package for streaming, the NFL and NBA won’t be getting a dime from me outside of whatever revenue they may get from my eyeballs watching an OTA broadcast.

Lesath (profile) says:

I gladly pay 20 a month to watch my beloved Blackhawks in the middle of Georgia. I occasionally watch another team but mostly just the Hawks. I would love for the English Premier League to figure out how to get streaming going so I can watch my Tottenham Hotspur. I’ve given up on the NFL doing anything for fans and I am lucky that I live just far enough outside of Atlanta so I get to watch all the Falcon games.

Seems like the pro sports leagues could figure out a way to get all matches streamed. Couldn’t be that hard, heck to just broadcast the Fox or CBS telecast. The leagues supposedly owns all the broadcast rights to every game anyways, I don’t see why that wouldn’t work.

el_segfaulto (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Finding streams online is easy. When I want to watch the Seahawks play (and for the last few seasons there hasn’t been much reason to), it usually takes a few minutes to find a stream and hook my tablet to my TV via HDMI. The quality is crap, although being able to watch commercials from the UK or Australia is pretty cool. I would gladly pay $20 a month for streaming access. They’re basically burning money at this point.

Ryan Jones (user link) says:

What I hate most is the local blackout rules. I pay my cable provider extra for the premium sports package that includes tons of sports channels. Among those are west coast only channels (I live in Detroit)

Yet any time there’s a game on (Say, San Jose vs LA in hockey) it’s blacked out in my area – Detroit.

Why? It’s not like I was going to hop on a plane, travel 3,000 miles and buy a ticket. Why can’t I watch? I’m paying for the channel.

Joe says:

Your numbers are a bit off

Directtv pays a lot of money – over $700 million a year – to be the exclusive US provider of NFL sunday ticket (access to all games). Directtv charges $400/season to access the online/non-satellite version of the service. wikipedia
There is too much money locked up in this exclusive contract for the NFL to be giving away their streams for free. While media companies often act irrationally with their content, many times the content is locked up in high value exclusive contracts.

Anonymous Coward says:

World Cup was the same way. The only way to watch it here in St. Louis (a pretty big soccer town) was to find a bar that had the right satellite package. You could stream it online, but our cable Provider Charter was not a member of the approved accounts to stream from.

The TBS app for the iPad has the same problem.

I can’t stand content protection.

Nick (profile) says:

I worked as a phone tech support for DirecTV for a while, and the rules surrounding sports games availability are just absurd. Apparently, the main reason you can’t just watch any game you want, ESPECIALLY from the leagues themselves, is that they give complete broadcast rights for a game in an area to local broadcasters. Thus, even if you have a massive (expensive) sports package deal from your cable provider, the games most likely interesting to you – such as games involving a local team – are blacked out, so you must watch it on a local channel, with local ads.

I suspect that the leagues get a ton of money giving out exclusive broadcasting rights certain games to local broadcasters, way more than any kick-back they get from ad revenue the stations get. They are then contractually obligated to make sure that every single person within the sports region can only watch the game on a local broadcast.

Oh, what’s that? DirecTV isn’t offering that local channel yet? Too bad, this 300+ NFL package still won’t let you see a local game. NFL rules.

bruce says:

easy answers

i’m always a little bit confused when i read articles asking why businesses don’t have better business models. as fan/consumer, our needs are vastly different from the owners of the content. we want better cheaper access, they want to erect barriers that require payment to bypass. if nobody ever paid for access they would move to a different model where they could still make money. so, the current model must work in some fashion, and your beef is with the people who pay for access, for they are the ones keeping this model alive. why do people pay for cable and still have to watch ads? because they will. the real power of consumer choice is choosing not to pay for something.

occassia says:

Re: easy answers

Good points.

On the other hand, emerging technologies are ignored surprisingly often by corporate decision-makers. Look at what’s been happening with music, cinema, publishing. Far from being the visionary titans of capitalism we imagine, corporate execs are frequently the panicky foot soldiers of prolonged rearguard efforts.

I’ve never had, and probably never will have, a “TV provider.” I’m not alone. And in my market, the cable company with the sports monopoly has been losing subscribers as their rates rise. That’s revenue they’ve lost, or have never had in the first place. Why not make a little of it back?

I go to home games as often as I can swing it –that won’t change– and our arena is always sold out. All I really want is to watch my NBA team at home for the games I can’t get to, and I would cheerfully pay to stream broadcasts, commercials and all.

I’m an opportunity no one’s taking advantage of.

Anonymous Coward says:

There is a pretty awful case of industry BS for Phillies/Flyers fans living in certain areas of Pennsylvania. Comcast Sports Net is the local broadcaster of virtually all Phillies/Flyers games, but because of what they call the “terrestrial loophole” (something to do with how CSN broadcasts with a microwave as opposed to a satellite), they are allowed by the FCC to withhold their feed from other carriers such as DTV.

Now, for some people in certain areas of PA, they are considered to be within the local market (and subject to blackout restrictions) for these games BUT they are unable to be served by Comcast (who up until the recent introduction of FiOS, was the only carrier who could carry the channel). What this meant for these certain customers, was that there were literally NO legal avenues to watch the games. They could buy NHL center ice, or there computer streaming package but they were blacked out.

Talk about encouraging piracy

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