By 2019 the Big 12 will be the only Power 5 football conference without its own cable network. Is that such a bad thing?
Maybe, but the way the television world is changing the Big 12’s lack of a cable channel actually gives the conference some opportunities to experiment with the burgeoning world of streaming and cord-cutting.
The Big 12 started that experiment Friday night with a one-off deal with Facebook Watch to broadcast the William & Mary vs. TCU men’s basketball game. You probably didn’t notice. The Big 12 only announced the deal on Wednesday, 48 hours before the game. So, consider Friday’s game a beta test of sorts (or is it alpha? I’m not as up on my IT terms as I should be). But it was the first Power 5 basketball game to broadcast as a streaming-only game.
Here are the three things I was looking at. First, the quality of the broadcast. Second, the quality of the video image. Third, the quality of the image on different devices.
The broadcast hit high marks on all three counts, in my opinion.
As far as the broadcast, it was no different than the previous TCU game I watched on TV, which was the Texas Southern game on Fox Sports Southwest Plus. The production value, graphics and broadcast team quality was practically the same. Friday’s broadcast was handled by TCU’s Sports Broadcasting Program in the school’s Bob Schieffer College of Communication. After seeing the game on FSW Plus and on Facebook Watch, it’s clear the program ran both broadcasts I watched and there was no difference at all in quality. If streaming really is the future, fans will demand a quality broadcast and on Friday night they got exactly that.
When it comes to the broadcast image I live in Plano, Texas, and I have a high-speed connection at home. I watched the game on my laptop, my iPad and my iPhone and the change in quality was negligible. At one point, I watched the game on all three devices at once and experienced no buffering. I thought the picture quality was best on my laptop and worst on my iPad, but as I said the difference in quality was negligible. During the game one TCU fan chatted with other fans saying he was watching the game on his phone while in a mall parking lot.
At one point, I used my Apple TV to mirror the game from my laptop up onto my TV and the quality remained practically the same. I had one buffering issue in the second half for about 10-15 seconds, where the broadcast stopped. There were a couple of times when the screen resolution change for a couple of seconds. But the stream remained consistent.
The broadcasters kept asking for more interaction from fans watching the game and I guess they weren’t keeping up with it because there was PLENTY of interaction in the chat stream. In fact, a group of fans fact-checked them on the NBA’s all-time best free-throw shooter by percentage (they though it was Rick Barry; fans figured out it was Steve Nash).
TCU fans were talking to each other. William & Mary fans were taking in the broadcast and voiced their displeasure when the TCU-centric broadcast cut away from W&M action for a few seconds to show TCU replays. It was the only major complaint lodged by either side about the broadcast itself (and the conversation about the replays took on a life of its own during the second half). To be fair, it was a TCU broadcast. It wasn’t intended to be down the middle, though I felt the broadcasters did a good of knowing enough about William & Mary to provide a picture of that team for TCU viewers. From my point of view, I could have done with less of the replays as viewers did miss live action on the other end, and that’s a broadcasting no-no. You don’t sacrifice live action for replays. But, again, this was the Big 12’s first foray into the streaming world. The Colonial Athletic Association, the league William & Mary is a part of, has its own streaming network so their fans are used to this type of broadcast.
At one point, someone from TCU Athletics’ official Facebook account asked if Die Hard was a Christmas movie. I’m not sure if it was a question meant to change the subject about the replays or if they were looking for legitimate guidance. But the general consensus was that that Die Hard is, indeed, a Christmas movie.
There were fans from as far away as Guatemala, Slovakia, Japan, South Korea and Australia watching the game.
In terms of stats, I assume the Big 12 will release those numbers soon, but it took just three minutes for the game to clear 1,000 consistent viewers and it stayed there for most of the game. It reached 2,000 consistent viewers as the game ended. By game’s end the live broadcast had 265,000 views.
And, best of all? No commercials.
As an experiment goes, I’d call it a success.
But what does it mean to the future of the Big 12?
As I mentioned earlier the league has no cable network. The conference’s major sports are promised, of course, to the big networks (we’re basically talking about football and basketball to Fox and ESPN). These conference networks are a place for those third-tier rights (basically your Olympic sports) to have a showcase. Right now, programs in the Big 12 handle those third-tier rights on their own. Texas has the Longhorn Network. TCU has FrogVision. Oklahoma has SoonerSports.TV. Kansas State has KStateHD.tv, and so forth. That’s part of the Big 12’s overall media deal. This means that whatever revenue these schools can generate from their third-tier rights they can keep.
These Big 12 schools have made huge capital investments on behalf of their third-tier rights. I’ve seen the studios and support apparatus on campus at Oklahoma (much of it is in the football stadium). It’s top-of-the-line equipment. In many cases OU, along with the other Big 12 schools, not only broadcast their own content but provide it to networks like Fox for distribution (it helps Fox fill out its regional broadcast calendar for its different networks. For instance, Fox Sports Oklahoma can’t do 24 hours a day on the Thunder. It needs more stuff to put on the schedule and it can get that from both OU and Oklahoma State, among others).
If the Big 12 had its own cable network these programs couldn’t do this. So as the media landscape evolves, the league — unlike the other four Power 5 leagues — can evolve, too.
We all know the landscape of broadcasting is changing. I can tell you that 20 years ago I used to watch most, if not all of my TV, live. Now the only live TV I watch is sports. Everything else is either in my DVR or part of my accounts on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Many folks are cutting the cord, and many of them are non-sports fans so it’s no big deal to them. But that’s bad news for ESPN and FOX, whose model is built on cable fees and subscribers. It’s been especially bad at ESPN, where they’ve laid off employees at least twice this year and have seen their subscriptions fall precipitously. ESPN isn’t losing viewers for its politics. It’s losing viewers because viewing habits are changing faster than the network can evolve.
If viewers are going to make a wholesale change to streaming, live sports will be the final bridge that must be crossed on a widespread scale for acceptance. The NFL has dipped its toe in the water with Yahoo and Twitter. But no streaming services has widespread streaming rights for any of the four major professional sports or college football because those rights are wrapped up in ESPN and Fox (ESPN and Fox stream those games as part of their apps, but it’s not the same as full and exclusive streaming rights).
But, it’s starting to change. DirecTV, Playstation Vue, Sling, Hulu and YouTube are among the steaming services getting into the sports space. Because of its various packages like NFL Sunday Ticket and MLB Extra Innings, DirecTV is probably the best equipped for this transformation (and as a DirecTV now user I can tell you their stream for live events is high-quality). The FCC’s decision to nix net neutrality may change this space entirely. It’s hard to know for sure this early after the decision.
But, at some point, one of these groups will figure out how to truly shift the paradigm and turn streaming sports from a thing you do when your team is on the road and not on cable to a thing you do all the time. When that happens, the Big 12 will be uniquely positioned to take advantage of it, either as a group or as individual programs.
The future is nearly now for sports streaming. It will be interesting to see if the Big 12 is the league that leads the charge full bore and where it takes us as viewers. After Friday night, I’m intrigued, and I think the Big 12 will be, too.