THIS week we got a glimpse into the probable future of how we will watch and experience football in the years to come.
Thirty years after Sky Sports revolutionised how we accessed and consumed the professional game in England, Amazon Prime opened its experimental coverage of the Premier League by streaming live games via their internet platform. Crystal Palace versus Bournemouth was the rather innocuous confrontation that debuted this new concept to the UK market, quickly followed by Burnley against Man City in a one-sided affair, 30 minutes later from Turf Moor.
Such is the way of these things, many revolutions start with a squeak rather than a roar.
Of course, for us in Ireland, we did not have to quickly rush to our laptops and smart TVs and work out how to subscribe to Jeff Bezos’ new plaything, the American tycoon owner of Amazon restricted himself to buying the rights of 20 games over the festive period in the UK alone.
For that privilege, his organisation forked out £90m in a deal that will see them do it again for the next two seasons. Our minuscule market, here in Ireland, did not interest the bald billionaire and instead, the rights to these games were reserved by Premier Sports, the reincarnation of the now-debunked Setanta Sports, who, once upon a time, themselves dared to take on the might of Sky Sports with the promise to revolutionise football coverage. After a valiant effort, they sadly faded from our screens.
If you still process the remnants of the Setanta subscription, then you were able to view these midweek matches, which were added to their existing, restricted to Ireland, 3pm games on Saturday afternoons. Otherwise, you travelled the same complicated subscription route as UK viewers in trying to get another paid subscription on your screen.
The main difference between the two jurisdictions was that while British viewers faced this brave new technological streamed world with added real-time stats and graphics, back home in Ireland you could be forgiven for thinking that you were watching 'A Christmas Carol' and the ghosts of Christmas Past, as Johnny Giles, Liam Brady, and Eamon Dunphy returned to haunt our screens like the long lost disgruntled spectre of Jacob Marley.
Meanwhile, Ivan Yates filled the role of the unfortunate Bob Cratchit, working more jobs and hours than even Scrooge’s brow-beaten assistant.
To be fair, they weren’t all that bad. You know what you are getting from ‘the three amigos,’ but it all felt a bit tired and worn. We’ve been down this road so often before. We don’t need the Ghost of Christmas Future to know how this ends.
Not that everything was running so smoothly over on Amazon. The early concerns raised on social media about the new service was the price. At £7.99 a month, the Amazon Prime subscription will hardly break the bank but if you are already a Sky and/or BT subscriber and the many hundreds of pounds that entails, along with all those Netflix and Spotify-like subscriptions we all seem to carry around with us these days, then you will understand that for many football fans this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The other question was quality. The UK surprisingly has a rather poor internet infrastructure with fewer than 4% of the population having access to high-speed broadband, in Ireland, it is around 15%.
Even on Tuesday, when relatively few watched the opening games there were still plenty disgruntled remarks from viewers left in perpetual buffering, which is annoying if you are in the middle of a movie but infuriating in the middle of a live game.
That grew to a significant disturbance when the viewing figures shot up for the Merseyside derby and Jose’s unfortunate return to Old Trafford the following night.
What will it be like on Boxing Day when Amazon will be streaming six of that day’s nine games simultaneously? Having no control of the performance of their consumer’s internet may be the biggest hurdle Amazon will face cornering their streaming plans.
Still, with the number of subscribers to traditional cable and satellite providers dropping like a stone in England, the streaming route will increasingly look more attractive to viewers and providers alike.
Our viewing culture today is well on the way to on-demand programming already and in the US, the networks in conjunction with the NFL, MBA, NHL, and NBA have long-established streaming platforms that have rejuvenated revenues after subscribers cut the chord on traditional cable providers in favour of live stream choice.
The big advantage to the consumer is that you are not relying on the provider to decide what you watch. On a dull Saturday afternoon, one might find it hard to be enthusiastic about Burnley versus Watford on your TV, as a fan of another club you are denied access to your side’s game pretty much down to the whim of an executive at a TV station or the constraints of the deal negotiated between the TV stations and the leagues.
Simultaneous live streams allow fans and neutrals alike to choose the games they want to watch, when they want to. Not what is fed to them. This is very desirable to the average fan, who will never have to miss their side play again.
But, of course, there are side-effects to this utopia. Diminishing revenues to lower-placed clubs in the table for one, as more and more fans will switch over to watch the streams of the title contenders rather than lower-placed teams, widening the already cavernous gap between the haves and have nots in the Premier League.
It even might have an impact on match attendance, with the urge to see your club in the flesh diminished with the knowledge that it will always be on your TV or laptop at home.
It is cold capitalism, but it has been going this way for years and it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the likes of Sky, whose dominance and marketing of the Premier League has relegated terrestrial TV stations and venerable competitions like the FA Cup to the scrapheap of irrelevance.