Defending the Streaming Sports Model: You’re Just Not Getting it Yet

I originally wrote this post on BigSoccer discussing the benefits of the NASL streaming model in response to complaints that the NASL needs a large cable contract like MLS. With Zac Wassink (no great critic of MLS) pointing out new dismal numbers and trying to figure out where MLS will succeed in a major market, my initial analysis unfortunately should be heeded by MLS fans in the long run as well, since in some cases the number of viewers nationwide is less than 50% higher than the total number of people in the stadium. The future of TV is here, and consider the reader warned.

I am including a lot of links in this post so people don’t think these are unfounded claims that I am making up to defend the NASL streaming model. I don’t have to defend it. It’s a smart, if as yet not fully developed model.

The reality is the league shouldn’t waste too much time on efforts to set up TV packages. For all of MLS’ negotations and channel switches they haven’t had higher than 1% of total TV viewership for MLS cup in 11 years. See here. Their visibility on what is clearly their flagship now, NBC Sports Network, approaches 115,000 viewers nationwide on average. (EDIT: See note above. It’s now as low as less than half that.)

Simply put, it’s more likely that more people have watched All My Children premiere this week on Hulu than MLS Cup on cable and a now-Internet soap opera could probably overtake their regular games on a daily basis.

But this isn’t even the biggest problem with making old TV a priority. The biggest problem is that thanks to companies like Aereo and low-cost boxes like Roku or Apple TV, at least two networks and Time Warner cable may actually dump their current business model in favor of streaming pay services. Don’t believe it? See here and here. Between Apple TV and Roku alone, we are talking about 20 million people. And that last news story was yesterday, so these aren’t ideas that came from 2009 “theorizing about the future”. They are changes to the business models that we will see companies rapidly adopt because….

If you add to the above the fact that cable subscriptions are at an unprecedented low, then fighting to negotiate your way to ESPN– when you could well create an online channel and undercut them, and achieve similar if not more profitable results– is a waste of time. Proof of the cable fail is right here. If TWC’s plans go through, then cable programming will be competing within an existing online television ecosystem. There is simply no need to go through their old model when you could circumvent it altogether.

You think with 12 teams, the World Cup, and the Cosmos you can’t get thousands of people watching a streaming game in 2014 if they can put it on the TV? (Because they can: the boxes are already bought.) The league is in the enviable position of being the first professional league in the US to have full coverage online. And guess what else that means– it means blackout restrictions are not only under their control, they can be completely ignored!

By making the priority streaming availability, there are so many other avenues the league can explore, and frankly, should take advantage of. And I’m confident they will eventually. Since NASL games operate on the UStream platform, my $50 Roku box allows me to watch the games on my TV at full screen, full volume, and no worse definition than when I had cable.

NASL is therefore, and I admit perhaps totally accidentally due to way they returned to the soccer landscape, already ahead. Don’t be surprised when your cable company offers you a Roku box in lieu of a cable box before long– and you can watch NASL just fine at no extra charge.

Late edit: By the way, local channels still work well in such a model. There are multiple services which allow the use of local channels on a streaming box… or there’s always an antenna.