Sports TV: UK v US

Yesterday evening, UK time, the NFL championship games took place, deciding which teams will contest the Super Bowl. I have an on/off relationship with the NFL – but will flip over to catch a bit every now and then. So last night, when I wasn’t watching Les Miserables on BBC1, I caught a bit of these games including an entertaining overtime in the Rams v Saints game.

I also caught the start of the second game – the Patriots v the Chiefs. The first score was a touchdown for the Patriots. The pictures we got from the host broadcaster, CBS, showed the player celebrating their touchdown, cutting first from the wide shot to a handheld camera that gave us a close-up of the player. And then, the next shot, before we’d seen any replays, or any crowd reaction shots, was of the Patriot’s owner in his glassed off luxury suite applauding the score.

The owner’s reaction to the touchdown is implicitly more important than anyone else’s.

OK, it was a road game (i.e. away fixture), and there were probably very few Patriots fans in the stadium. But there will have been some. And they will have looked less like a company’s board all shaking hands after a particularly good takeover had been achieved.

Compare and contrast with the Premier League. When a goal goes in, we likewise tend to cut from a wide shot of the goal, to a close-up of the player celebrating and being congratulated by teammates. Then we get replays of the goal from a few angles, perhaps a crowd reaction shot, and probably a manager reaction shot.

What nobody is interested in is what the owners’ response is. We almost certainly won’t see them at all. There might be a cutaway at some point in the live game, with the commentator explaining who the person is. But most coverage will ignore them altogether unless there’s great fan unrest towards the owners.

The only UK sport I can think of where owners might get some acknowledgement is horse racing. If your horse wins the Gold Cup or the Grand National, the horse and jockey get most of the attention, then it’s the trainer, and then finally the owner.

I shouldn’t be surprised by the American angle on sports. These aren’t teams (implying a group of athletes), they’re franchises (like a branch of Subway or McDonalds – a business opportunity).

A business imperative is built into the very fabric of US sport.

NFL on Twitter… in the UK

Earlier this year, Twitter signed a deal with the NFL to stream 10 Thursday Night Football games. They paid around $10m, and the NFL noted that theirs wasn’t the highest offer on the table.

I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of Twitter’s strategy. For the NFL, it’s about reaching harder to get audiences – “millennials.” Twitter was looking to grow its platform, and the NFL, in the US, might seem a sensible option.

Now it’s worth noting that the Thursday night games are perhaps the least desired packages, but that they’re also broadcast on the NFL Network, and shared between broadcast networks NBC and CBS. So these games are widely available over the air.

When the deal was announced, it was noted that Twitter had global rights to these games, and so, because I was up late last Thursday, I thought I’d see what was available. I use Twitter extensively, but I don’t consider it a video streaming platform. How would I go about watching the game?

Well it wasn’t at all obvious. The game was being shown by Sky Sports in the UK, but I wanted to see it on my phone. I went to Moments, the lightning bolt icon that I never normally touch (I’m afraid Moments is only marginally less useful than Facebook’s recently launched sub-sub-eBay Marketplace “feature.”)

There was no sign of the NFL, even under Sports which looked like was regionalised for UK tastes.

Perhaps it wasn’t really available?

Finally I searched “NFL” and that led me to a Tweet which seemed to have embedded video. After briefly being led in circles being redirected to a website, with the site then suggesting I open the Twitter app I’d just come from, I opened the stream and it seemed to work well. I was served with the straight NBC/NFL Network feed, and the coverage was good. But I was curious. What would happen in the ad breaks?

Well I didn’t get to see US ads. Instead, I got some promos for the NFL Shop, and some generic Twitter videos. And then I got them again. And again. It was awful. There were maybe five videos, and they looped and looped, often multiple times in the same break.

If you don’t watch NFL, then you won’t know quite how many breaks there are. But a game that’s played for an hour lasts a good three or more hours on TV. And much of that is commercial time.

One way or another, Twitter wasn’t serving UK specific ads, so we got the same cruddy filler endlessly. It was unbearable. It didn’t help that one of the videos featured Obama, Clinton and Cameron, and urged us to #Vote. For whom, or when was unclear. Post Trump’s win, I think I might have retired that video.

Anyway, the timings of evening games in the US means that worrying about watching live NFL coverage isn’t high on my European agenda. But if Twitter is going to get into video broadcasting seriously, then they need to work out a localisation strategy.

The NFL in London

This Sunday sees the first of this year’s International Series NFL games at Wembley – the New York Jets play the Miami Dolphins. This year there are once again three games, all regular season fixtures, meaning they’re not friendlies, and they count for the teams involved who want to reach the playoffs.

I went to one of the first regular games at Wembley and had a good time. I enjoy watching a bit of NFL on Sunday evenings on Sky Sports – either the live games of the week, or via Redzone which flips around all the games happening at once.

I’m also aware of the serious medical concerns about the way the game is played – the repeated concussions that seems to be linked to some early deaths. (The same is probably also true of rugby)

But I do get increasingly uncomfortable about the International Series, and I don’t go any longer because I don’t think it’s fair on the local fans. The regular season of NFL is actually a pretty tight 16 fixtures over a 17 week season. Compare and contrast with a 38 match season – 19 matches home and away – for a Premier League team. NFL teams normally have one “bye” week, and for teams that travel across the Atlantic, that’s scheduled for the week after an International Series game to allow players to properly get over any issues with jet-lag.

16 fixtures a season means only 8 home games a season before the playoffs. So a team that plays a fixture abroad is denying local fans a live opportunity to see one eighth of their games. This season that means fans in Miami, Jacksonville and Kansas City lose out on the opportunity of seeing a home game.

The NFL has to carefully balance the games they choose to send abroad by perhaps choosing less well supported teams against the need to have attractive fixtures to sell the game internationally. Because that’s what this is about. The NFL is the pre-eminent sport in the US bar none, yet it doesn’t have the international appeal that they would like it to have. The NBA is probably the most popular US domestic sport internationally. And it’s notable that they too play games around the world to build on that.

The NFL will no doubt be shouting loudly about how the games at Wembley are sold out, and yet you get the feeling that demand and supply are reasonably evenly matched.

One way to achieve a wider international appeal might be to have a UK franchise (Yes – pretty much like a Subway “franchise.” That’s the way US sports work.) And for some reason George Osborne was today entertaining NFL representatives:

So what’s my problem with all of this?

Well first of all, it’s this kind of thing that gives the Premier League big ideas. Remember the 39th game? That ideas was shut down at the time, but you wouldn’t bet against it coming back, despite the inequality of some clubs playing others three times in the course of a season (“We get to play Man City a THIRD time?”). And it’s not as though the Premier League isn’t perfectly successful already. While the NFL is still more profitable, due in large part to the size and value of the US domestic TV market, the Premier League is the next biggest, and is probably the most popular domestic league around the world. Fans who’ve never missed a game in their lives suddenly can’t get along to the 39th game of the season – because it’s in Bangkok or Los Angeles!

But my other issue is the way US sports expect local governments to support them. Teams in the US seem to shift around the country at will – normally because they’ve decided they need a bigger newer stadium, and somewhere else is willing to give over the land, provide large tax-breaks or basically pay for the building of their new home. Clubs are all (well, nearly all) privately owned, and those businessmen didn’t get where they are today worrying too much about local fans. That basically explains why a city as large as Los Angeles doesn’t have an NFL team.

So in a week when Transport for London decided that the capital couldn’t afford to host the Tour de France in 2017 (a decision that I tend to think was probably right, but handled utterly ineptly), I’d like to know what kind of demands the incredibly wealthy NFL would make on London to find a permanent home for an NFL team.

If the NFL wants to have a London-based team, and the backing comes from private money, then that’s fine by me. But I don’t expect to see a penny of tax-payer funding, in cash or tax-breaks, going on such an enterprise.