The golden age of streaming sports isn’t perfect, but it’s still damn good

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The golden age of streaming sports isn’t perfect, but it’s still damn good

As the air turns colder and we approach the holidays, we also find ourselves knee-deep in one of the best times of the year for sports: The NBA and NHL are in full swing, college basketball is getting warmed up, college football is barreling toward Bowl Season, and the NFL season is getting hot as teams position for the playoffs. Plus, there’s soccer and any number of other winter sports to catch should you be so inclined.

Thankfully, it seems that sports streaming has finally caught up to our needs.

Yes, we now live in an era when it’s possible to keep track of all the important games as you’re on the go between shindigs and holiday concerts. The advent of streaming sports has made it possible to never miss a moment instead of languishing in a bubble of, well, NO SPORTS. 

What a time to be alive. 

Out of the stone age

Watching a crystal-clear stream of almost any sporting event I could want on my phone is a far cry from the first — and only — way I encountered watching sports live on the go before the “streaming revolution.” 

That would be via the Sony Watchman, a brick-sized device that could tune in TV stations using an antenna to a screen that, in retrospect, seems barely the size of a postage stamp. 

I remember looking over a friend’s shoulder and squinting real hard to make out a college football game while on a school trip in the mid-1990s. Besides the small screen, we had to contend with the fickle nature of the antenna signal, which became even more fickle as we traveled miles and miles, going in and out of range. 

Given the size of phone screens and the ability to stream in high definition on said phones, it feels like the Watchman is a relic of a long ago time, as old as the black-and-white television. But the product was around deep into the 1990s, only being discontinued in 2000

That shows how quickly things have evolved in the 16 years since Major League Baseball offered their first-ever online stream of a baseball game. What was described as a “too choppy and too fuzzy” experience has given way to high definition streams of every baseball game at your fingertips. 

A screenshot from a recent MLB game I watched on my iPhone 8

A screenshot from a recent MLB game I watched on my iPhone 8

Hell, the last two years alone have brought rapid evolution. In December 2016, I wrote about how streaming services still left much to be desired. Now I’m cordless, relying on an over-the-top (OTT) subscription and some league-specific subscriptions to bring me more sports than I could possibly watch to just about every platform I could imagine.

And it’s paid off, giving me the chance to stay up to date and in the loop with the most important live sports events, no matter what family gathering or wedding reception I may find myself at. 

Earlier this year, I was at a Major League Baseball game. A few of us split our attention between the live game in front of us and the perfect HD stream of a live NBA playoff game on someone’s phone.

What a time to be alive.

The last stand of DVR-proof programming

The leaps in technology and the ease with which one can stream sports are certainly huge factors in why it’s exploded. But just as important is the fact that sports remains the last bastion of DVR-proof programming. 

For all the hand-wringing over, say, not being able to watch a Game of Thrones episode live, it’s still possible to watch the episode hours after airing. It just takes a little self control to stay off social media and the internet. 

But sports is still that ephemeral entertainment, something very much of the moment. As soon as a game is done, the analysis has started, and the cycle for the next match-up is already underway. Results are, literally, news: No one is going to hedge on sharing an NBA final because of a “spoiler alert.”

Besides, experiencing these moments together as they happen is part of what makes sports a worthwhile pastime, even in this new digital age. 

A 2016 study by the The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg found that 90% of fans were willing to pay something for access to sports, while nearly two-thirds would pay for an over-the-top subscription. The study also confirmed that mobile devices were becoming more popular in how sports are watched, especially among younger viewers: “65% of GenZ and younger Millennial fans are consuming sports content on a mobile device.”

Ratings site Statista found very similar results, showing 63% of sports viewers ages 18 to 24 watched on “non-TV platforms” while over half of viewers age 25 to 34 did the same. And ESPN saw a healthy uptick in numbers when they started including streaming in their overall ratings measurements.

The bottom line: If you offer it, people will want it. There’s no waiting around to watch a ball game later. 

How to enjoy it

The first step, of course, is access. To view anything is going to cost you money. But if you subscribe to either cable or an OTT service like Sling or YouTube TV, you’ve cleared a big obstacle. While options vary by provider and by each provider’s subscription tiers, you’ll find most sports channels widely available to watch on your mobile device using your subscriber login. 

All four major sports leagues here in the United States — the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB — have stand-alone apps that offer various subscription levels for following action all year long. For soccer fans, there’s also the Premier League Pass and subscription add-ons like Fox Soccer Plus. And new digital streaming platform Stadium is starting to gain a little traction with its own pay platform. 

Plus, ESPN has finally launched its stand-alone ESPN Plus service, which includes access to tons of college sports, MLS and NHL games, and a deep library of documentaries and other programming (though not live streams of the official ESPN channels themselves).

But there are still free options! In an effort to keep audiences engaged and using their platforms, social media companies like Twitch, Facebook, and Twitter have begun adding sports streams. Both Facebook and Twitter have deals with Major League Baseball, and each has its own soccer deal: Facebook streams the Premier League in Asia and the Champions League in Latin America, while Twitter struck a deal with MLS.

And, of course, there’s Amazon and their rights to the NFL’s Thursday Night game for Prime subscribers, a highly coveted package that the company gained after out-bidding Twitter and YouTube. It’s another example of how the NFL, as it battles headlines about declining TV ratings, is shifting its focus to streaming. 

More options exist, far too many to list all of them. But streaming has become such an ubiquitous part of how we consume sports, teams and publishers include “how to stream” as part of their regular promotional efforts. 

In 2018, it’s pretty hard to not find a way to stream the sporting event of your choice straight to your mobile device.

The blackout problem

Of course, no system is perfect, and neither is the world of sports streaming. The biggest thing to be aware of is blackouts. While the outdated concept of the television blackout — not airing a team’s home game in their local market — is meant to drive fans to actually attend the games, digital blackouts are a different beast. 

If you’ve got a cable or an OTT subscription, you’re probably OK, provided that OTT subscription includes the regional TV channels airing the games. But without those options, it gets a lot tougher.

Stand-alone subscription packages offered by the NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB all black out in-market teams, leaving local fans in the dark or to find more nefarious means of viewing. 

These digital blackouts are because the local stations paid a boatload of money for rights to your local team’s game, and they want to make sure they keep eyeballs on their channels. The leagues don’t really mind, because they’re pocketing the money anyway. 

Adding insult to injury for some fans is that fact the the leagues, particularly MLB, can make those markets notoriously far-reaching and frustrating. For example, Iowa is considered a blackout zone for six different teams (Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, and St. Louis Cardinals), meaning none of those teams are available via the MLB.TV app; you have to pay for a cable subscription to see the games of any of those teams. 

And there are a handful of MLB teams, like the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals, that are impossible to find on any streaming service thanks to those regional channels who really, really want to restrict viewers to simply watching on TV.

Tech hurdles also remain

Besides access, the biggest issue with sports streaming is, well, the streaming part. Without decent coverage, you’re not going to have the data to actually stream the event, something that might be a particular issue while traveling. It’s the Watchman antenna struggle all over again.

If there’s good news here, it’s that data coverage across the country is increasing, as are ways to grab a wifi signal. That said, even with good connectivity, it’s pretty easy to blast through data limits if you don’t have an unlimited plan. 

And yet, despite these issues, things are still as good as they’ve ever been. The quality and cost of services are improving, and availability is more widespread, especially as it becomes clear that streaming everything is our eventual destination.

Meanwhile, old Watchmans rust away in basements across America, a forgotten reminder of a dark time when we didn’t have nearly every sporting event available with just a few taps. 

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