Getting The Hang Of Football On The Internet

Getting The Hang Of Football On The Internet

By on Aug 24, 2010 in English League Football, Latest | 4 comments

In no small part, the print media and the film and music industries both made the same mistake with the arrival of the internet. They both reacted to slowly at first to the new technology and both are repenting their tardiness at their leisure. The print media have been unable – yet – to find a method that successfully been able raise revenue from the shift to online viewing (and the silence from The Times after their paywall went up would seem to indicate that the numbers probably haven’t been spectacular, although Rupert Murdoch has described them as “strong”), but how will football, which has been happily wedded to television for the last two decades or so, react to changes in viewing habits?

On the surface, subscriber levels could be regarded as healthy. Sky has approaching ten million subscribers, and a sizeable proportion of them pay extra for their sports packages. They continue to lead the field in some forms of innovation at least, such as showing matches in 3D and their commitment to High Definition broadcasting, and Premier League television revenues have continued to rise with each new contract, although whether this will continue if Sky’s legal challenge to the OFT’s ruling on their dominance in the pay-TV market remains to be seen. However, the collapse of Setanta Sports last summer demonstrated that nothing is certain in the new media age of the twenty-first century and few would want to hazard a guess at where the media landscape will be in ten or twenty years’ time.

As with newspapers and music, the internet is the beast that needs to be tamed if the money is to keep flowing into football. It could be another cash cow to be milked dry on both the domestic and international markets but, on the other hand, it will require careful treatment and innovative thinking to bring the best out of the medium without ruining the culture of our game. Even in Britain (where we still lag behind many other countries in some respects), average broadband speeds are now sufficient to be able to stream live video, even if we are some way off being able to stream in high definition with any degree of reliability. Why, though, isn’t this being taken advantage of to the extent that it perhaps should be?

Part of the reason is that the FA will not allow matches that kick off at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon to be shown live on the television or online in the UK. There is a good reason for this, of course. There is plenty of reason to believe that Premier League matches being shown live on the television at the same time as other matches would decimate attendances at lower league matches, after all. Filling this void has come a large number of streaming websites showing matches that do kick off at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, but the evidence seems to be that very few people actually watch these matches on the internet. A recent YouGov poll indicated that just 2% of respondents intended to stream matches using a computer over the course of this season.

A large part of the problem would seem to be a logistical one. Do people want to spend an hour and three quarters hunched over a laptop screen, watching a match on a 4″x3″ window? The answer to that is that this may soon become a thing of the past. Most flat screen televisions come with a socket which allows the television to be converted into a computer monitor, and this alternative usage of the television set may well become more commonplace in the future. The other logistical issue would be likely to be picture quality. Internet feeds still suffer because of the strains of streaming video footage, and “buffering” is commonplace. Streaming video is expensive for the content providers as well as the viewer on account of the amount of bandwidth required if is to be watchable.

As time goes on these issues will resolve themselves, in all likelihood, but the danger for the football authorities is that, unless the likes of the Premier League and the Football League become early adopters of the infrastructure required to stream matches at a high resolution, the public will (as they did with online newspapers and, to an extent, with the downloading of music) become so used to getting it for nothing, even if the quality is inferior, that they will not pay for legitimate live football over the internet when it does start to become the norm, and that this could become a major issue for the game if it is not careful. There may not be many people deserting their Sky subscriptions for illegal streams at present, but if this were to happen current television packages would become significantly less valuable than they currently are.

The desire to watch live matches on the move may be limited, but ESPN have launched an application for the iphone which will bring highlights packages to people’s mobile phones, but it seems doubtful that this will bring in much more than what would be small change, financially speaking, to the broadcasters and, therefore, ultimately the clubs themselves. Still, at least the Premier League finally seem to have cottoned onto the fact that, until recently, there were too few ways to watch their competition, even if there was more of it to watch than ever before. Still, though, there are limitations – “Match Of The Day” is still not available on BBC’s Iplayer service (although “Match Of The Day 2″, the show’s Sunday night little brother, finally is), meaning that viewers that are out at 10.30 on a Saturday night and want to catch up with the programme but don’t have a hard drive recorder have little choice but to download a torrent of the programme.Yahoo’s online highlights, being shown for the first time this season after they won the rights to them from Virgin Media, amount to little more than three minutes of each match.

What we know from history is that, in terms of this sort of issue, those who strike first are likely to succeed. Sky Sports gambled on the Premier League in 1992 and, whether rightly or wrongly, there can be little question that it paid off handsomely for them, if perhaps not for the rest of us. We also know, from the experience of the print media and the film & music industries that something different has to be offered to persuade people to pay online, and that even this may not guarantee them the sort of revenue that they may feel entitled to. It is easy for Richard Scudamore to make statements such as, “A good service with a strong partner is important to us both in terms of accessibility and complementing live coverage”, but turning this into cold, hard cash seems likely to be a very tall order indeed.

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    4 Comments

  1. Good post. A couple of things… First, Americans have been watching Premier League games streamed live to laptops (legally) for a few years now. It took a while to get used to it, but the experience is great. And the quality of the HD stream is better than the television picture.

    Second, the bigger concern for the Premier League is that they don’t want to let go of the big cash cow which is propping up the league… and that’s TV revenue. They’re not in a rush to be ahead of the curve by offering legal streams of games online which they could sell as subscriptions because I’m sure they believe that would negatively affect how much TV revenue they could generate.

    The future is streaming all games to a computer which can then be played on a TV, on a phone or a tablet, or similar device. I don’t foresee the Premier League lifting their 3pm Saturday ban, so for many Brits illegal streams will become more and more part of their Saturday routine unfortunately.

    Cheers,
    The Gaffer

    The Gaffer

    August 25, 2010

  2. I think the gaffer is right that the 3pm Saturday no-go area means illegal streams will get the ‘in’ to the market that the main article predicts (most people, even non TV subscribers, would prefer to be in the pub anyway for Sky or ESPN games).

    But I don’t really see how the broadcasters have got a disincentive to open up online coverage match by match – it may reduce subscriptions but that could be offset by charging more for one-off games? If, as the artice suggests, the FA are early adopters there is every reason to beleive they could use Sky’s marketing resources to capture that market. Plus they could sell streams by subscription as well.

    The 3pm broadcasting ban by the FA will be irrelevant if illegal streams increase in quality before they have legal competition (and therefore take over as consumers get used to not paying for football). The only way the FA can retain any control over its product is by moving first.

    It would be progressive of the FA and the Premier League to break off the 3pm broadcasting ban, let the boradcasters collect the money for streaming and use a chunk of the money to compensate the football league clubs that lose out on attendances.

    But that would of course break every trend in football governance for the past fifty years.

    Stephen Campbell

    August 25, 2010

  3. In what sense “progressive”? Unless in your world “progressive” means “showing two fingers to all the loyal supporters who actually go to games rather than sit on their fat transatlantic arses gawking at it on a screen”. The surest way to kill football in the UK, kill off 80% of the League, y’know, those clubs that actually discover and develop the talent, would be to allow live streaming at 3pm on a Saturday and add to the disincentive for casual supporters to turn up at their local ground.

    The progressive approach would be to allow a season-pass for live streaming of your club’s away games to be sold – or better, offered free – with a season-ticket for the home matches. So you can only access internet coverage if you’re a season-ticket holder. And only of your club’s away games.

    Real fans – as opposed to TV watchers – have consistently been ignored, taken for granted, and ridden roughshod over. Without us, the game becomes an irrelevance – a hideous pastiche of itself about as compelling as “Gladiators” and about as real as wrestling.

    Jim

    August 26, 2010

  4. Jim what you suggest would make sense (and I would be all in favour of it) if it was in any way possible to restrict access to streaming. But the point of streaming is that it isn’t possible to restrict access – which is the point that the main article is making.

    I was following the logic of the original article (that of first mover advantage) and suggesting that legal streaming might actual capture some revenue. What I meant by ‘progressive’ (in the “y’know” wealth redistribution sense) was that it would be progressive if that income could be redistributed to the lower league teams that will inevitably lose out anyway when illegal streaming is of higher quality.

    I don’t understand how my suggestion rides roughshod over ordinary fans.

    Sorry if my point wasn’t clear.

    Pretty bored of the ‘you’re not a real 60 game a season fan like me’ card being played whenever anyone tries to start a discussion about anything. For this reason I will not be telling you who I support or how many games I go to a season.

    Stephen Campbell

    August 31, 2010

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