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The Football League must leave the dark ages or die: the case for streaming matches

Laurence Griffiths

For decades upon decades, football in England was a largely local affair. Rivalries were defined by neighborhoods, towns, and cities, coupled with with long-standing cultural and regional norms and stigmas. In recent years, football has become much more accessible to incredibly wide audiences. Teams from Bolton to Torquay and everything in between have established fanbases all over the world.

Yet, while the Premiership is just about completely available to anyone that wants it (or is willing to pay relatively small fees), the vast majority of Football in England is closed off from the masses. The 20 teams in the top flight are visible and accessible for all while the 72 Football League teams below them are, not counting awful radio streaming options, closed off from the world.

A few years back, Major League Soccer in the United States began using a subscription-based streaming service in order to bring in viewers that could otherwise not access matches at the various grounds. Of course, the United States is a huge country and for most fans, an away day is not as simple as jumping in the car, driving an hour or two down the motorway. For those fans that simply do not have the time or financial means to support their teams on the road, the $50 per year MLS Live streaming service opened up the potential to support teams from just about anywhere so long as you had a capable mobile device or computer.

On top of allowing fans to simply see the games, the addition of streaming services carried added benefits. It brought new fans to Major League Soccer by allowing an easy platform for people to watch on with free week-long samples to draw them in. The subscription fees thereafter opened up a previously unknown revenue stream for MLS. Then, the new fans provided more eyes on the league in general, surely providing a boost in ad revenue. In addition to that, all of the new eyes on the league saw the stadium atmosphere on TV and many went out and saw their teams live at the stadium, experiencing said atmosphere firsthand.

The major fear about the implementation of streaming services is that by being able to watch the game on a computer or mobile device, the fans would elect to go with the easier option and not make the trip to the ground. Being able to watch the game will surely have some effect in that regard as ticket prices rise at seemingly constant rates. Those effects would likely only be a relative drop in the bucket. In the case of MLS, attendances only increased (and are still increasing) and with those masses came improved stadium experiences.

Away support in England is a small fraction of home support (often between five and ten percent of home attendance). What streaming would provide to the 15-20,000+ Bolton Wanderers fans that can't make rainy Tuesday away trips is a chance to watch their team play. The thing about the fans that go on the long trips to watch their teams play at strange grounds is that they do it for the so-called away day experience. There's something special about taking the journey with friends, packing an away fans' pub, and huddling together in a relatively small section as you hope your team takes all three points on the road. The away day experience is often not about simply watching your team. It's more than that and that is something that TV or streaming simply cannot replicate.

This all goes beyond the local and relatively local fans though. Whether or not you want to admit it, and don't doubt there are some xenophobic fans that don't want to, Bolton Wanderers are a very international club. Of the tens of thousands of unique visitors that this site brings in every month, 193 nations are represented. 10% of the visits come from the United States, the second-most represented region next to the UK. South Korea, Australia, Spain, and Germany also appear in their thousands.

One of the bigger barriers to entry for cash-strapped clubs is simply the cost of providing this streaming service.

For those tens of thousands of fans and people generally interested in Bolton Wanderers, be it because one of their national team members plays for the Trotters or they're just curious, getting to the Reebok Stadium week in and week out is not an option. In those tens of thousands of fans lies an opportunity for the Football League.

Right now, the FL charges roughly £5 per month for the (generally) awful Player service which broadcasts some games on radio feeds of varying quality as well as hosting highlights and the occasional interview coupled with a terrible mobile app that only added a mobile audio option in March, 2013. You would likely be hard-pressed to find someone that is actually satisfied with the level of service for the price they pay. Yet, many would be more than willing to pay double that fee per month if it meant access to live video.

In the United States, Fox Soccer Channel ran the streaming FoxSoccer2Go service that provided access to (almost) every Premier League, Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, and more. The service cost $20 per month but thousands of viewers thought that would be more than reasonable and paid it. If the Football League decided to double its monthly fees for an improved, video-streaming Player service, the number of subscribers would surely be in the tens of thousands. The fact of the matter is that the one or two games per week that Sky elects to televise from the whole of the football league, likely featuring Leicester City, is nowhere near enough for a football-crazed fanbase.

A streaming service would provide a massively increased fanbase and, in turn, more eyes on the team. More eyes would allow clubs to charge more for ads, the football league to charge more for naming rights, and Bolton Wanderers (and others) to command better shirt sponsorship deals. With more sponsors aiming to get potential customers to see their brands, there is the potential for Bolton to avoid another QuickQuid fiasco. Additionally, there is another opportunity to give sponsors advertising space during pregame, halftime, and postgame sections of match coverage, adding yet another source of income.

A streaming service would provide a massively increased fanbase

As the saying goes: a rising tide lifts all boats. More people watching and maintaining interest in the team means more money into cash-strapped clubs, perhaps raising the level of competition in the lower leagues. More money from the increased interest could also (albeit somewhat unlikely) see clubs stem the flow of rising ticket prices, keeping fans within reach of seeing their clubs live.

What is ultimately stopping a positive shift into present-day technology is a simple lack of competition from the powers at be. The Football League signed a contract with unknown details some years ago (unknown because it's a top secret document or something) with Perform Group to set up and run the aforementioned Player service. Perform also runs entities like the empire and those auto-play football news videos on sites like the Bolton News, NewsNow, and so on. Because of that contract, Perform was never forced to innovate and could thus continue putting out the same old product without fear of losing the deal. No pressure means the same old, boring, buggy product year after year.

One of the bigger barriers to entry for cash-strapped clubs is simply the cost of providing this streaming service. This, however, is not anywhere near as daunting as it seems. In the United States, the second and third divisions, NASL and USL Pro, respectively, stream every single one of their matches for free. Sending a production truck with staff and cameras comes to a relatively low cost. The thing about NASL and USL Pro is that they literally give their matches away. Apart from bringing in viewers, the leagues are not bringing any money in from the streaming service. Instead, they're sinking the cost and hoping that it pays off in the end by bringing fans to the ground and/or by selling merchandise.

I'm not saying that the Football League should give video streams away, what I'm advocating for is a subscription-based model with monthly or yearly fees. An average of 1,000 subscribers per team per month at £10 month will easily match the costs of broadcasting video and anything above that, sponsorships included, goes to profit. It's simple, really, and the Football League is suffering by not entering the present.

Football, as a whole, is changing and those who do not adapt will be left behind. England is already well behind the curb while leagues like MLS are riding high, reaching the crest. All told, the Football League is missing a massive opportunity by shutting international fans and those that simply cannot afford to travel out.