Patrick Ryan, Policy Counsel, Open Internet at Google.
I'm a University of Texas (UT) Longhorns fan. My family home is in Denver. The Longhorns have an online presence, the Longhorn Network (LHN), and I have quality Comcast Internet at home. Last Saturday, I opened the LHN website to watch the season opener and saw a beautiful online interface with an inviting "all access" banner and "watch now" button. But when I clicked on the button, I didn’t see the game. Instead, I was invited to sign ESPN's online petition to "demand Longhorn network" from my cable provider. I tried to "demand" LHN from Comcast as prompted, to no avail.
I couldn't watch the opening game of the season this last Saturday because UT has signed an exclusive deal with ESPN to carry LHN on cable. Just a click away—yet unavailable to me in Denver, at any price.
I'll admit: I considered black market options to watch the game online. Ultimately, I didn't pursue retransmission, although I did spend some time investigating what streams might be available. My conclusion? There's clearly demand out there and an underground market willing to satisfy it.
Increasing evidence suggests that viewing habits are shifting from television to online. For example, on YouTube, we see 72 hours of new video uploaded every minute. And people are willing to pay for content! The world loves Netflix, and its revenue has grown steadily for years. Of course, the technology for the Internet was first used by universities for research purposes. MIT and Stanford are moving to make all their content open and free to the world. What if sports content, especially that of a public university, were treated similarly?
Let's look a little closer at the LHN deal:
- LHN's 20-year deal is valued at $300 million total, or about $15 million per year.
- LHN's online platform only reaches about 10 million potential subscribers: Grande (180,000 subs), Verizon (4 million subs), or AT&T (5.1 million subs).
- On the whole Internet, LHN would have 240 million potential viewers in the U.S.—24 times its current reach via TV.
- Globally, the Internet would bring LHN 2.3 billion potential viewers.
ESPN understands the value of the Internet. go.espn.com offers options for soccer, football, tennis, and myriad other sports. But LHN, and most college sports, are absent. Unfortunately, without ways to buy the games fans want, many fans show team spirit by watching games on illicit web streams—as was the case for last year’s Cricket World Cup.
In response to frustration, the university's athletic directors ask fans "for patience and understanding," but fans aren't pleased. And because of the size of UT, there are a lot of fans. LHN’s request for fans to "demand" that their cable networks buy LHN puts the cable networks and fans at irreconcilable odds with each other.
Instead, what if UT used the Internet to get people to follow the Longhorns—maybe even increase the fan base globally? Cable networks would be driven by market demand to show the games in new regions. There's a ton of potential here for all the world's sports, not just college football. UT has made the choice to lock itself into a contract that prohibits it from streaming its own games online for 20 years. But are there other college teams and other sports out there that might embrace the opportunity of enthusiasm for online sports broadcasting?