When it comes to television shows and events, we the people have been taking more and more control of what we see and on what medium. The rise of everything from DVRs to streaming Netflix to mobile TV means that we get to decide when we want to watch our favorite shows. More people have taken the plunge and cut the cord to expensive cable and satellite TV services in order to watch shows exclusively online or on services such as Roku, Boxee or Google TV.
But one of the big hurdles to getting people to cut the cord is sports. While you can watch many local sports teams play by accessing free digital broadcast signals (which includes the major broadcast networks), there’s very limited selection online when it comes to watching major sports teams play. (Note: There are a variety of overseas gray market sites that offer streams of big games for a price, but their legality is muddy, at best.)
What sports fans need to cut the cord is a potential new service that I call “Hulu for Sports,” a way for us to watch the games we want online or streamed to our TV. Hulu currently offers TV shows, movies and some sports highlight shows, with some provided advertising-supported and free, and others coming in a premium offering called Hulu Plus. Why not add in live sporting events, with the less prominent games at the free level (e.g. the Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Milwaukee Bucks) and higher interest games at the premium level (e.g. the Miami Heat vs. the Los Angeles Lakers)?
Below is a breakdown of what I’d like to have in a Hulu for Sports, and below that is the inevitable reality check from new media strategist Seth Shapiro, who explains in gory detail why my fantasy will not be realized anytime soon.
What I Want
All Sports, All the Time
I want to have access online to all the major sports from around the world, from real football (a.k.a. soccer) to cricket to basketball to extreme sports. Maybe some of the major leagues could create a joint venture, similar to Hulu, where they each would get a cut of the revenues generated. They would make sure in all future TV contracts to allow this new site to stream sporting events as well.
So how would this site make money? It would use all the current online video ad formats, from overlays to pre-roll ads to surround-ads that go around the video player. The vast majority of sporting events would be shown for free. A minority of sporting events would be available in a premium offering where you pay a monthly fee. And an even smaller minority of events would be available as pay-per-view streams. So these events might be broken down like so:
> College women’s volleyball game: free
> Major league baseball game in May: free
> Regular season NBA game between top teams: premium
> Super Bowl: pay-per-view
If I’m going to watch most of my sports online or on my TV through streaming, I want to have more interactive features. I want to chat with others online during the game, share feeds with friends through social media, forward along highlight clips, pick camera angles, and more. Once sporting events are shifted online, the possibilities are endless for features like instant polls, live chats with experts, and a stream of star athletes’ tweets (before or after games when allowed).
Play on Demand on All Platforms
Now that I’m used to having a DVR, I want to be able to watch sporting events on my own time, fast-forward through slow parts, replay the best parts and generally decide when to watch what. That means giving me replay controls similar to TV but online. And not only do I want to be able to watch the games on the web in my browser — I want to see them on all my devices, including smartphone, iPad or Internet-enabled TV. Hulu for Sports needs to be multi-platform and on demand.
Gosh, I’d really like to see a replay of the Giants/Rangers World Series. Or maybe a college football game I missed earlier this year, such as when the Missouri Tigers beat the Oklahoma Sooners? Or maybe a string of old boxing matches when Mike Tyson knocked out various opponents in the first round? The Hulu for Sports service would need to have a robust series of archives available, supported by ads or pay-per-view depending on the popularity of the event.
Why It Won’t Happen
Now that I’ve envisioned the perfect sports-on-demand online service, I’ll pull my head out of the clouds for a reality check. Not surprisingly, my bubble is easily burst in a world where massive TV sports contracts restrict leagues from offering up all these games online. In a few cases, such as CBS March Madness on Demand during the NCAA basketball tournament, the networks are able to show full games online supported by ads. But with TV contracts in leagues like the National Football League, the chance for watching games online is severely limited.
With the NFL’s online offerings, you can watch NFL games in HD online with full DVR functionality, but you have to live outside the U.S. If you want to watch games inside the U.S., you can do so after the game is long over. Watching live games online isn’t possible, even for a price.
Seth Shapiro, the digital media strategist at New Amsterdam Media, has worked with Comcast, DirecTV, Universal, Showtime and Disney in the past. He explained why a Hulu for Sports is highly unlikely at this time.
“The sports leagues have been the biggest defenders and exploiters of rights, period,” Shapiro told me. “When looking at sports licensing fees [paid by cable providers], they really explode. Sports is really expensive to the consumer and the distributor … And they have a pretty good deal as it is. In the case of Apple doing a [possible] subscriber service for Apple TV at a $30 price point, once you factor into account that ESPN is $4 per month per subscriber, that’s a lot of money. It’s hard to picture a situation where the premier stuff — NFL, NBA and MLB — giving their games away for free. Even as a loss-leader to build a new service.”
Shapiro explains that the pricey TV contracts with leagues put them under pressure to restrict what they can offer online. Any move to cable-cutting by sports enthusiasts would hurt TV viewership and by extension those multi-billion-dollar contracts with the leagues.
“The place it comes to roost is the master affiliation deals between league and distributor,” Shapiro said. “The rights over who can put things online become very contentious. The distributor can say they don’t like the idea of a league offering the same content elsewhere, undercutting their exclusivity. The home games are available in market. But out-of-market rights, the argument is, ‘Look we’re paying you a lot for these games, so you can’t sell it to anyone else.’ That’s where Hulu finds itself. You can put some things there, but not sports, which is the most expensive stuff and the least likely to be offered there. If there’s a game on Monday Night Football, ESPN would say, ‘that’s our game! You’re not going to give that away!’”
Fair enough. But what if the leagues got together to form a joint venture, the same way that TV networks got together to form Hulu? Couldn’t their combined power force the networks to let them put games online too? Shapiro is doubtful.
“If you’ve got a Comcast with 26 million households or a DirecTV with 20 million households, that’s direct revenue to whoever owns those rights,” Shapiro said. “If you’re a league it’s very hard to figure out how you’re going to come up with that kind of money by going direct to the consumer. If the ad market were really strong, then maybe you could do it … You’re forgoing a real and predictable revenue stream for something that might be a lot bigger but no one has really cracked yet.”
And yet, I still hold out hope for my vision of Hulu for Sports. Perhaps when a big TV contract is up next time a league will consider holding some rights for online distribution and new models. And perhaps, just perhaps, the cord-cutters will have an option to watch the sports they want on their own time on the platforms they enjoy most.
What do you think? Would you cut the cable TV cord if you could watch sporting events live online? How would your own Hulu for Sports work? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.