Last night I was frustrated. Not by the Cubs, who are making a historic playoff run — and who I'm hoping will win their first title since the fall of the Ottoman Empire — but by my inability to watch it. I tried three different, entirely legal, ways to watch the Cubs-Dodgers game and was stymied each time. You'd reasonably assume that postseason baseball is widely viewed enough that it'd be available over-the-air in the largest media market, but no dice. Due to a complicated and ridiculous TV deal, Fox owns these games, but chooses to air them on their new sports channel, Fox Sports 1 — thus forcing cable providers to include it in basic cable packages. As a card-carrying millennial, I don't have cable, preferring the extra $64.95 per month to spend on 🎮 and 🍺. It turns out that the other two ways I have of watching baseball also were blocked. Thanks to Jon Legere's insanity and an old T-Mobile iPad, I have a subscription to MLB.tv except — surprise! — that's blacked out until the World Series. And then we come to the message above. What Fox is saying (via TiVo and Verizon FiOS) is that even though I've paid for this channel, and want to watch it live, with commercials, I'm not allowed to because... something.
We should look to the NFL for a cautionary tale. Despite a (rather impressive) streaming deal with Twitter that has revitalized a flagging Thursday-night product, ratings are down 11% year-over-year. As commentators and bloggers scramble to find excuses for an unprecedented ratings drop — suspensions, injuries, even Hillary Clinton — the simple fact is that it has become more difficult to watch major American sports leagues than most other forms of entertainment. In an era when anyone can plop down on their couch and binge on Netflix' ($9.99/month) or HBO's ($14.99/month) high-quality content whenever they want, in HBO's case often before an episode airs on linear TV, why should they sit through endless commercials to watch an entertainment product that isn't better? During a broadcast earlier this year, a sentence was uttered by a broadcaster which left me speechless: "due to NFL rules, we're not going to be able to show you the end of that game. Instead, here's [our anchors] with the [team] postgame show." Even the digital products put out by the leagues is mediocre — I'm not going to pay double the cost for baseball ($25/month) or quadruple the cost for football ($40/month) to run into onerous blackout restrictions, time delays ($40/month doesn't even buy you live-streaming, only time-shifted viewing later), and general disrespect for the fans. Yes, teams are making money hand-over-fist, but this won't last.
Respect for your customers, fans, users, members — whatever you want to call the consumers of your product — is essential to building a sustainable, long-lasting business. We're long past the era where football was the only entertainment available on Sunday afternoons, or everyone would tune in to watch a sports championship; The fans that do tune in are clearly more dedicated, and more interested, than most of the prior (much larger) audience. Yet this loyalty is met with indifference by the industries that are selling against the fans' eyeballs. Making the content available to paying customers wherever and whenever they want isn't benevolence, it's table stakes in the digital era. Without a significant rethinking, ratings will continue to decline as people give their attention to content that appreciates their loyalty. Meanwhile, the NFL recently renewed a deal that prevents them from offering live streams of most of their games, meaning they cannot even start competing in the streaming space until 2022.