Watching the Dream
Women’s Professional Soccer and Free Live Sports Broadcasts
For a fleeting moment I was living it. The dream, as promised by so many commercials, press conferences, product reveals, and billboards, all with "screen images simulated" conspicuously plastered about. My dream is a future of free, pervasive, live, mobile sports viewing; anywhere and anytime. Sitting in the sleek black leather chair, unchanged since 1962, in the efficient and very new Indianapolis airport, connected on a rare full-bar 4G signal, I was watching a live sporting match while waiting for my plane to begin boarding. I was watching the National Women’s Soccer League.
Live sport streamed to your mobile device is not a new concept of course, and it exists in many different forms throughout the major leagues. But access varies wildly and price structures are often huge barriers. The NHL Gamecenter Live app costs $49.99 for access to live streaming games in out-of-market areas, subjecting the live stream to the same baffling blackout restrictions as broadcast TV. Last year, in a full length season not shortened by a labor strike, the same service cost $169.99. The NFL and Verizon Wireless just came to agreement in early June to allow users of their NFL Mobile app (a $5/mo "premium" app) to stream "home market" afternoon broadcast game to their phone, but not their tablet, and not out of market. Subscribers to DirectTV’s $299.95 "NFL Sunday Ticket Max" can stream most NFL games to their device through an app but the stream is variable in quality and subject to additional and vague restrictions which make it difficult to determine if the game you want to watch will be available at all (it appears from a review of the fine print that Sunday Ticket and Verizon’s NFL Mobile deal are mutually exclusive). And ESPN has their WatchESPN app which requires a cable subscription and only works with certain cable providers; a non-starter for cord-cutters and rural dwellers around the country. But in the nascent National Women’s Soccer League, things are a little different.
You’ll be forgiven for not knowing about the NWSL if you live outside one of the eight local markets, or if you live outside the world of soccer in general. It is a new league midway through the inaugural season. Some markets are struggling out of the gate, and with two other failed women’s leagues in the United States in the recent past, the burden of history is against the fledgling league. But there are bright spots. The big name stars from the American, Canadian, and Mexican national teams have been allocated to the eight clubs in an effort to bring parity to the league and star power to the game day programs. Superstars Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, and Abby Wambach start on the pitch next to completely unknown amateur players.
Perhaps more important has been the broadcasts. In a shrewd effort to bring the game to more fans (During the development and running of the NWSL, Executive Director Cheryl Bailey has been nothing if not aware of the fact that the success of her league depends on the draw of fans to game) the NWSL partnered with YouTube to stream every home game, live, through the leagues channel. Every team would handle their own broadcast and every home team would provide the camera work, graphics, commentators, and sponsors. This often works less than well in practice. A few of the clubs play at stadiums which are little more than high school sports complexes and the camera work reflects that to a large extent. One stream I watched flat out missed a goal because of bad camera panning. But when it works, it works to showcase a fun and exciting game to the fans in HD, wherever they may be.
Critically, this dream was coming to me on last generation hardware. My Verizon Galaxy Nexus, plagued by radio problems ever since its first birthday is beginning to feel very long in the tooth. Especially when viewed under the constant barrage of advertising for the hyper-advanced Galaxy S4 and HTC One. But here it was, connected up to four bars of pure, unadulterated, airport-grade 4G LTE, streaming the Portland Thorns FC versus Seattle Reign FC match. My dream was alive and happening. It wasn’t happening with the NFL or MLB or NBA or even the MLS, but with a startup league in an oversaturated sports world.
As with all dreams however, it was not to last. Shortly after Karina LeBlanc made a spectacular kick save to deny Seattle midfielder Christine Nairn her penalty attempt and put all thoughts of Seattle comeback to bed once and for all, my internal radios reset, the feed dropped and I didn’t have a 4G signal again until just before they shut the cabin door and I was confined to the pre-technological prison of SkyMall. I followed the waning seconds on twitter however (a place where the clubs have learned from established sports leagues, providing real-time information during the games to their followers) and generally contented myself with a Thorns win and a brief flirtation with a promised land of technology.
But I had seen it, my dream. I had lived with free, live, high quality sports and it would be hard to go back. Unburdened by the ability to make billions on TV deals and carrier-specific subscription services, the simple integration of YouTube’s live streaming service provides an avenue for a league hoping for viewing numbers in the thousands, not millions, to showcase their game. But just like my aging Galaxy Nexus, a change is coming. Beginning July 14th, Fox Soccer will broadcast one NWSL match a week, up to and including the playoffs. But gone will be the free YouTube streams, crushed under the weight of the broadcast giant. Ultimately this will be good for the NWSL. The huge exposure Fox Soccer brings is difficult to underestimate. But it will not be a good thing for my dream. We’re still a long way from realizing that.