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For quite a while now, some of us in the business of discussing digital business models and entertainment have suggested that the ongoing trend of cable-cord-cutting, which will eventually turn the cable TV business into something completely different than what it’s been for decades, would be best spurred on by better streaming sports options. What once seemed like a trickle of streaming adoption by sports leagues and broadcast partners has begun to turn into a river, with baseball and football looking to expand streaming options and some very serious web companies getting into the game as “broadcast” partners with major pro sports leagues.
It isn’t stopping. In fact, it’s only ramping up further. The NHL, the group with the lowest television revenue of the major sports leagues, and therefore the most to gain from streaming its product to expand the fan-base, just announced a deal with Major League Baseball to piggyback on the excellent MLB Advanced Media platform to stream NHL games.
The partnership will transform the fan experience by creating a fully integrated global hub of digital content that encompasses video, live game streaming, social media, fantasy, apps, along with statistical and analytical content. With an emphasis on deeper access into the game and telling the stories of NHL players, MLBAM and the NHL will collaborate on developing new digital products and platforms while enhancing current offerings.
The deal awards MLBAM rights to distribute live out-of-market games, including through the NHL GameCenter LIVE and NHL Center Ice subscription services in the United States and certain international markets. MLBAM will operate NHL.com, including the League’s seven native language sites, and Club websites. MLBAM will operate NHL apps and be available to develop apps for the Clubs. The NHL and MLBAM will partner on the design and development of new digital products and platforms. The NHL and its Clubs retain editorial control across all platforms. The Emmy-Award winning MLB Network will provide studio space and production resources for the NHL Network for distribution in the United States and certain international markets.
This works on so many different levels, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, any baseball fan, or really any sports fan, should be aware by now that MLBAM is the absolute gold standard in sports streaming. The price, the offering, the quality, the organization, the replays and the presence on new media is done amazingly well. If you’re a baseball fan and you don’t have MLB.TV, you clearly enjoy self-masochism in a way that I will never understand and may God have mercy on your soul. The NHL, in partnering with MLBAM, doesn’t need to create their own platform. They simply partner with the best in the business and go on doing what they do best: producing hockey games. Give up a little control, get back a ton of exposure and a platform that makes the game widely available throughout the country/world.
Which is exactly what some of us (ahem, me) said the NHL should have done immediately after the last lockout. The promise of streaming is a customer-base unimpeded by borders or geography, one where your best fans can access your product wherever you go. The NHL, more than any other league, needs this sorely. Now they have it in a package that almost inevitably will be better than the Center Ice streaming product, which, blech. The only question is going to be just how long is it going to take, how many smart TVs need to be sold, and just how wide does the high-speed broadband net have to be cast before the leagues realize the obvious conclusion they should be drawing from all of this: they don’t really need the broadcast partners anymore.
Notice the language that the NHL used in announcing this deal. MLBAM is the distribution channel for out-of-market games for the NHL. Today that means streaming the television broadcasts out of market. But also note that MLB has its own cable network and is its own broadcast partner for some games. Exactly how far is MLB away from partnering with MLB franchises to broadcast on its own station, where it can sell its own advertising, hire its own on-air talent, and all the rest? And if they can do that, they could simply stream the games as a priority and leave the television station on as an afterthought. They already know how to do this, through the MLB.TV service. Exactly what purpose are the TV stations filling that MLB can’t do on its own?
And if MLBAM wants to strike up deals with other sports leagues to be their broadcast partners on the web? Well, if you work at ESPN, you ought to be shaking in your shoes right about now.
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