|ESPN Networks' online player|
Chalk this win up for the little guy. And while it may not seem like much now, this victory is going to change the way that avid fans consume sports.
On Monday, for the first time, cable subscribers were able to legally watch an ESPN NFL game online with no restrictions. Sure, NBC has their Sunday Night stream and the NFL has been its Thursday Night Football games online, but neither has been a full, easy-to-use viewing experience of the exact network feed. While NBC's version was good but sometimes frustrating, the NFL Network games were more of a canned Internet studio show with live action football spliced in, making for a frustrating experience for the viewer. But the ESPN Networks feed of the Cowboys-Giants game looked and felt like I was watching through a set-top box.
As it's been reported today in several outlets, including the Wall Street Journal (here; paywalled), Time Warner Cable launched its first real venture into broadband sports distribution through its partnership with ESPN. TWC customers now can log on through a branded portal and see the ESPN national feed in crystal-clear HD. (In fact, I'm watching SportsCenter right now on my external 23" screen, and frankly, it looks better than my 34" HDTV.) Soon, Verizon FiOS and Bright House Networks subscribers will be able to do the same.
As adoption continues, sports viewers are going to begin to consume the ESPN product now in two ways. Smart sports fans have long been fans of ESPN3, especially when it comes to college football and basketball, as well as international soccer. But viewing has been limited to fans of regionally-popular teams and off-the-national-radar friendlies. Adding ESPN3 to the Xbox Live interface is really going to be popular, possibly cannibalizing the WWL's own Game Plan and Full Court Packages (details here). However, I believe that putting the national ESPN feed online for all subscribers is a game changer.
Now, I need to make something clear. I have been critical of Time Warner Cable in its inability to come to the table with the NFL and get a carriage deal done for NFL Network. I think it's a big miss, for both sides. But this move shows that TWC is ready to play ball with broadband sports. And as a subscriber, I am happy that TWC has this programming available to me. But it may come at a cost.
MLB Advanced Media's Bob Bowman, widely recognized as one of the Internet's leading sports innovators, told the WSJ today that he has "doubts" about the model. I respect Bowman's opinion, but I don't think his talk of password sharing and how that potentially drives free content for non-subs is a major concern. (His company has figured out how to prevent multiples from viewing, and I'm sure ESPN can as well - if they want to.)
The WSJ also comes out and says in the piece that the offering "could strain ESPN's relations with major sports leagues, as some content owners throughout the media have had misgivings about the TV Everywhere model, viewing it as a way for the cable industry to protect its business while limiting the ability of content providers to exploit new technology platforms."
Honestly, I can't envision deeper penetration adversely affecting leagues, but I understand the point of contention. On one hand, proponents of ESPN Networks will see the service as a means to consumers to consume the product in new, innovative ways. But on the other hand, the service is a direct competitor to online streams, such as Bowman with MLB.TV.
At the end of the day, I believe that this is a win for the sports fan and leagues too.
It allows for "Everywhere" accessibility to the core product of the world's leading sports media entity. Leagues and teams aren't going to be replaced -- nothing stands in for the live game experience. Showing games and content in HD, be it through the set or online, drives demand for tickets, merchandise and other discretionary spending around sports.
In closing, I believe the jury is out on how long this venture will stand until the leagues step up and ask for relief. I think the timing is incredibly interesting, as it comes at the end of baseball season. I wonder how Bowman would feel if the launch was around, oh let's say, Opening Day? Probably his "doubts" would turn into "concerns." For now, let's call this a victory for the sports fan and an opportunity to continue to drive critical fan passion.