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Watching sports online: How each league’s streaming options stack up

The NBA Playoffs began this weekend. I’d be excited to watch them, but I am unable to. My house has long objected to cable television, instead focusing on Netflix and other streaming media. That means the NBA Playoffs, which will air mostly on cable stations, are out of reach for us.

You might assume that the NBA markets a product to stream its playoffs online. I would happily pay $20 or more for that privilege. Surprisingly, no plan exists. More surprisingly, the NBA’s online strategy mirrors that for most other sports.

Despite ever-greater popularity and revenue, online plans for some major sports are still stuck in the last decade. Here’s a look at how each sport has adapted to the Internet – and in many cases – how they haven’t.

NBA

The NBA airs many games online via its League Pass service. Two versions of this season-long plan are offered: a $49 “Premium” plan providing access to games from all 30 teams, and a $24 “Choice” plan providing access to games from five teams which you choose. Though affordable, the NBA’s online plan has annoying problems: broadcast blackouts and a surprising lack of playoff coverage.

A blackout is when a broadcast is not aired in a certain market for contractual or other reasons. Because of League Pass’s blackout rules, games for the team in your local market — likely, your favorite team — will often not be available online. Nationally-aired games are blacked out too. So, League Pass will let you watch basketball online — just not the games you most-likely want to watch.

Worse, none of the NBA playoffs are broadcast on League Pass. Portions of the 2011 playoffs were shown on ESPN3 and TNT’s Overtime Extra, but these sites are only available on certain ISPs. Shockingly, ABC provided no live online-viewing option for the 2011 NBA Finals, instead replaying games hours later on ESPN3. The NBA, one of the most digital-friendly professional sports, lacked a plan for airing it’s most important content online in real-time.

Bottom Line: League Pass Broadband may be the most affordable online plan provided by the major sports. However, providing no legal way to watch the NBA Finals online is a terrible error. All in all, the NBA’s online offering is fair, but only because those for other league’s are worse in comparison.

NFL

The NFL’s best regular-season product, NBC’s excellent Sunday Night Football, is broadcast live online for free. But you’re out of luck if you want to watch other live football online before the playoffs.

The NFL offers what appears to be a strong online plan with Game Pass product — but you can’t watch it if you live in the United States. (You know, where American Football is popular.) Game Pass is exclusively an international product. US fans get Game Rewind instead, where a monthly $14.99 fee (during the off-season) earns you “on-demand online video access to NFL games after they have aired on broadcast television.” According to the fine print, the NFL’s Sunday games don’t air on Game Rewind until late on Sunday night, which means you’ll likely have to wait until Monday to watch your team play.

The NFL makes up for it’s lackluster regular-season plan with a great post-season policy. In 2011, all of the league’s playoff games, including the Super Bowl, were aired online via NFL.com and NBCSports.com. Further, more games will be aired online during the league’s next TV contract, which will run from 2014 to 2022 and grants all networks but CBS Internet rights.

Bottom Line: The NFL’s highest-quality products — Sunday Night Football and the playoffs — air online free-of-charge. This and the expectation for more live coverage in the future make the NFL a leader online.

MLB

Major League Baseball’s MLB.TV is forward-looking, but comes with many restrictions. Two plans are offered: a $19.99 monthly plan which allows only web viewing and a $24.95 monthly premium plan which also allows viewing on Xbox 360, iOS and some Android devices. Season-long passes are $109.95 and $124.95, respectively.

 

Baseball’s blackout rules are more stringent than the NBA’s. On MLB.TV, a game will be blacked-out if:

  • you are within the TV market served by either of the teams playing,
  • you live in Canada and the Toronto Blue Jays are one of the teams playing,
  • you live in the U.S. Territories of Guam or U.S. Virgin Islands.

Those are just the weekday, regular season rules. Weekend games are blacked-out for the entire United States and only air as an “archived game” more than an hour after the game concludes. Further, all post-season games are blacked out in The United States, Canada, and several other markets, though they are similarly available later as archived games. MLB also has a “Postseason.TV” product which airs “live alternative video feeds” from playoff games, but not the actual broadcast feed.

Bottom line: Higher prices and more blackouts, but it’s nice that replays are so thoroughly available. Less live action puts MLB behind the NBA, but only slightly.

NHL

The National Hockey League’s GameCenter Live is similar to the MLB’s and NBA’s plans, suffering the same blackout problems that plague its competitors.

“By becoming a subscriber to NHL GameCenter LIVE,” the league advertises, “you will get access to live out-of-market game broadcasts.” So, like League Pass and MLB.TV, GameCenter LIVE broadcasts a ton of sports action — just probably not your favorite team’s games. GameCenter Live is also not available for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Instead, the NHL markets GameCenter Premium, which offers “live radio broadcasts through the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

Bottom line: Hockey fans who live for the greater stakes and intensity of playoff hocket are out of luck. Calling an audio-only stream “premium” is silly if the “regular” streaming plan offers video. The NHL easily offers the worst online viewing options of all four major sports.

Luckily, there’s still piracy

Archaic online plans are even more enraging in light of the ever-improving illegal stream economy. Anyone can find a live stream of the sporting event they want to watch — and pirates don’t respect broadcast blackouts. Professional leagues will continue to leave dollars on the table until they provide streaming products competitive with those being offered illegally.

Because I know where I can go to watch my Colt’s lose in real-time. You probably know what site to visit to watch your favorite team, too. All the DMCA takedowns in the world won’t matter until the major sports wise-up and realize this.

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