Written by Media, Sport, TV

Watching Football on the Internet

And so it has come to pass – this weekend’s dead rubber between the Ukraine and England, will only be available online or at your local Odeon cinema.
The prices seem to range from £4.99 if you book now to £11.99 if you book on the day of the game. Odeon cinemas seem to be charging the higher of the two prices.
There’s been a combination of teeth gnashing and apathy today. The game is pretty much meaningless since England has qualified (although it might subtly affect our “co-efficient” for determining things like group stages draws in future tournaments).
That said, I certainly can’t be bothered.
The reason given for the match not finding a television home with the BBC, ITV, Five, Sky or ESPN is that “broadcasters were willing to pay the asking price to screen the game.” In other words, if none of those guys – even someone like ESPN which is surely trying to create a new business, isn’t willing to pay to screen it, then clearly too much is being charged.
What’s actually happened is that when the draw for this round of group stages was made by FIFA a couple of years ago, a few sports agencies dash around and purchase the rights to games from individual nations’ football associations. They move quickly since if a footballing “minnows” have games against larger football-mad nations. Rather than selling group stages to one rights holder, individual nations can sell their own home games separately. So whatever the English FA would like it to do, it’s the Ukranian FA that gets to sell its home rights.
So it was that back in November 2007 a company named Kentaro snapped up the rights to a number of England games. Setanta came along and bought them. There was probably a hope that if it came down to the wire, this could be a critical game for England to qualify for South Africa. A high fee was probably demanded and paid. In the event, England strolled the group, and the match is meaningless, as is the final fixture against Belarus. Meanwhile Setanta went bust and rights reverted to Kentaro who were then left with a problem selling them in a down market at a time when England were strolling to qualification.
Kentaro has taken a gamble and it hasn’t paid off*. So now, rather than cutting their losses and accepting the highest offer from a “traditional” football broadcaster, they’re trying the direct-to-consumer route. They claim that they’ll limit the number of streams they sell to a million which represents a minimum of £5m revenue if they get to that number.
In the future, we’ll perhaps see more of this kind of selling, although there are plenty of regular pay-per-view platforms available like Sky Box Office, Virgin Media and BT Vision. None of these seems to be being employed. So unless you’re able to hook up your PC to your TV, you’re reduced to watching the game on a smaller screen – quite possibly a laptop sized screen. Not your 42″ plasma. A pay-per-view option would also have enabled some pubs to show the game.
Will the feed be stable? Who knows. The BBC has struggled at times during key Wimbledon fixtures that take place during office hours. Sky’s Player also struggled at certain points during The Ashes. These are large broadcasters with big IT teams who are used to serving significant numbers of simultaneous streams. Sport will always show up a poor digital picture – I’d always want to watch some sport on any prospective flatscreen TV I was buying for example.
How strong is Kentaro’s backbone? It’s possible that we won’t find out, because I’d be amazed if all that many pay up.
The Odeon idea is interesting, and I assume that it’ll be an HD stream – certainly not an internet stream. In the past Odeon cinemas have simulcast live football in big tournaments, as well as HD Formula 1 coverage. They also regularly show live opera from places like the Met and Glynebourne.
But let’s see what happens at the weekend. I doubt we’ll ever learn how many streams are sold. However, it will be interesting to see what happens when the draw for the group stages of Euro 2012 are made in February 2010. Will we see some higher profile away games going online?
*Clearly, I have no real insight into Kentaro’s business plans, but I think that’s a safe assumption to make.