September 13, 2016

Are You Confused About Some Football?

Fall is in the air and the NFL season is officially underway. For the online video viewer, there are more ways than ever to watch America’s favorite pastime. This is a good thing, right? Well, sort of.

This past Thursday, while at a local Starbucks, I streamed NBC’s season-opening rematch of last year’s Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. The video quality was fine, but the process of getting to the stream was painfully confusing and frustrating.

Why is online NFL viewing so complicated, and what does it tell us about the future of TV? One very big thing….

1. The NFL Has Made Too Many Business Deals for Its Own Good
There are two key factors driving the proliferation of NFL football content online. First, the NFL is really, really popular, which means everybody and their brother wants a piece of the action, regardless of the screen or network. Second, broadband video opens up an endless number of ways to package and repackage NFL content. The product of these two factors is complexity to the nth degree.

A brief recap of the process through which I went to watch last Thursday night’s game should suffice.

My first stop was the NFL app on my smartphone. The future of TV is an app, right? Undeniably, but unfortunately it’s not that simple. On the NFL app, free live games are a total non sequitur, though I can subscribe to NFL Game Pass for $99/season. This is a decent option, especially since I really want to watch this game. But there’s a catch. Game Pass only provides live audio of NFL games, along with video replays after the game is over. Sitting at Starbucks, this amounts to $99 to listen to the game on the radio. Count me out. There’s gotta be another way.

My next stop was the broadcasters, so I turn to the NBC app on my iPhone. (Fortunately I already had the app downloaded on my phone, otherwise I would have had to muddle through the App Store and separately download yet another app.) And then I discover the main NBC app doesn’t actually have live sports content. Instead, users have to separately download the NBCSports app for the NFL. I do so, open it up, and see a preview for the game. Cool. Wait, what’s that fine print on the screen? Turns out I can’t watch the game on my phone because I am an AT&T customer and Verizon Wireless (still) has an exclusive NFL deal in place. But I’m not on either carrier’s network, instead using Wi-Fi. What the muck?

Ever patient, I take out my laptop (which I luckily have with me), move my headset from phone to laptop, and connect to Starbucks’ Wi-Fi. Wait, I don’t have a power cord and there’s no place to plug in. Will my battery die half way through the second half? Probably, but there’s nothing I can do about that now. Will Starbucks block me from streaming? Maybe, but it’s worth a try. I navigate to NBC Sports and see a big promotion for Sunday Night Football. But it’s Thursday, right? I guess NBC does Thursday night games under the Sunday Night brand. Weird, but I’m almost there!

As the page loads, however, I get kicked out to the NBC pay wall. Turns out NBC requires authentication for NFL games (even though it’s being broadcast for free over-the-air on NBC stations nationwide). Okay, but I’m not at home – I’m in a Starbucks. So now I’m supposed to have my credentials on hand when I buy a cup of coffee? Fortunately, I have a file on DropBox with the username and password. I log into DropBox, open the file, get the credentials, go back to the Xfinity window and log in. Success! I’m still a few minutes early for kick-off and looking forward to catching the last few minutes of the pre-game show. No dice. All I get is a blank screen saying that today’s event is now over. What? NBC can’t afford to produce two different static graphics, so users get the ‘Game Over’ screen before the game even starts? So much for pregame. That said, I do get to watch the same two pre-roll ads about 50 times, so I’ve got that going for me.

Finally, the game starts and the stream lights up. Hallelujah! I don’t recall ever having such a sense of achievement from the simple act of turning on a football game. The quality is decent with only occasional buffering. I’m starting to think this is pretty great. I could get used to doing this on Thursday nights while my kids are at their evening activities. You and me, NBC!
Well, not so fast. I Google next week’s game only to find that the NFL has split the Thursday Night Football rights between NBC and CBS. Next week the game’s on CBS. Does CBS even live stream NFL games from its app? No idea. Does CBS require authentication? Beats me. Or maybe football has moved to the CBS All-Access SVOD service? I sure hope not. Oh, I remember. Twitter is streaming next week’s game! Great, but I still can’t use the Twitter app on my phone because of the aforementioned Verizon deal. And there is no Twitter app for laptops, which means I’ll have to bring my laptop to Starbucks next Thursday, open up the Twitter homepage, and hope for the best.

The bottom line: just because content rights holders like the NFL can do a zillion different licensing deals doesn’t mean they should slice up the rights as many ways as possible. Sometimes less is more.

Fragmentation and complexity are inevitable in a TV-as-an-app world. I get it. (Actually, I’m the one that predicted it). Pendulums can swing too far, however. The NFL’s current approach to online streaming is far too complicated for even a sophisticated streamer. Once the current experimentation phase runs its course, expect a move back towards rationalization and consolidation.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.

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