WatchESPN app makes history, frustrates NFL fans, and complicates online sports streaming

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By most metrics, no company has had a better start to 2015 than the world’s leader in sports. ESPN aired its first ever NFL playoff game in the company’s 35 year history last Saturday with an NFC Wild Card matchup between the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals. ESPN also rang in New Year’s Day with six college football bowl games including the first ever Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl under the new College Football playoff structure. The results were an overwhelming success with the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl match-ups ranking as the number 1 and number 2 most watched cable telecasts of all time respectively with over 28 million viewers each. The NFC Wild Card game had a nice day as well, attracting 21.67 million viewers to become the eighth most watched cable program of all time.

ESPN is happy. TV advertisers are happy. So, why was this historic three day weekend anything less than a victory lap for Disney’s cash cow? Because the revolution was not (fully) mobilized.

All of those games were advertised as being available to view on Disney-owned ESPN’s WatchESPN app which streams ESPN’s live and on-demand content to smartphones, laptops, tablets and computers to those with subscriptions to participating cable companies. There must have been a “will malfunction if it gets too popular” fine print none of us read as millions of viewers were unable to stream the entire first half of the Rose Bowl match-up between undefeated Florida State University and Oregon through the WatchESPN web or mobile apps due to internal server issues. The game was also unable to be streamed to televisions through Roku, Apple TV and Chromecast. ESPN announced the problem was remedied by halftime and I can attest it streamed crisply over my Android smartphone once order was restored. But, some fans still could not watch FSUs quarterback Jameis Winston’s internet breaking backwards pass. I was still unable to stream either game on Chromecast via WatchESPN, and instead had to use the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes, like others.

What happened with the NFL Wild Card game cannot be simply explained by faulty ESPN servers, however. Unlike the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, the Panthers-Cardinals playoff game streamed perfectly over the WatchESPN web app. If you wanted to go for a quick beer run and still continue the action on your phone you were greeted with this message: “This event is not available on this device.” The ESPN Deportes stream was unavailable on mobile devices, as well. This time, there was no tweet from ESPN’s PR department explaining why the first ever NFL playoff game on ESPN could not be viewed on phones through ESPN’s own app. That’s mostly because, this time, there may have been nothing ESPN could legally do to fix the problem.

In June 2013, Verizon agreed to a 4-year/$1 billion deal with the NFL for the rights to stream more NFL games on mobile devices through the NFL Mobile on Verizon app, including all playoff games and the Super Bowl. FOX, CBS, NBCUniversal, DirectTV, and ESPN all extended their TV deals with the NFL back in 2011. Each deal included the right for those companies to show NFL games in a customer’s home market on devices other than televisions, but not smartphones. The NFL Mobile on Verizon app costs Verizon wireless customers an extra $5 per month, but is available for free to customers who sign up for Verizon’s More Everything data plan starting at $75 per month. You’ll be able to watch an NFL playoff game on ESPN for at least the next eight years, just not on a phone for the next three.

The sports section of the burgeoning “TV Everywhere” industry is still in its infancy and ESPN was not the only company throwing up shoddy performances. The NFC playoff game between the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys on Fox was the most watched sports event that week by far, with an average of 42.3 million viewers. FOX live streamed the game to laptops, tablets, computers, and smartphones through its FOX Sports Go app, but the same problems that plagued ESPN’s college football playoff coverage reared its ugly head. Numerous fans reported the Spanish-speaking broadcast of the game on FOX Deportes was the only stream available through FOX Sports Go.

Even with a plethora of disappointed fans, the two college football Bowl games averaged 864,000 unique visitors, and the 912,000 unique visitors of the Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Alabama made it the most watched college football game in WatchESPN’s history. The difficulty of streaming live football games paired with the historic success in the face of it all could be enough incentive for ESPN to deliver the standalone app the network has been pondering since last year. In an interview with Re/Code last September, ESPN President John Skipper proclaimed any ESPN standalone app would not disrupt ESPN’s linear channels and would include original programming and niche sports instead of extremely popular ones, such as the NFL.

Those words could simply be rhetoric as four months after Skipper’s comments about not disrupting the company’s linear channels, Dish unveiled Sling TV, which offers ESPN, ESPN 2 and 10 other channels starting at $20/month. ESPN usually garners over $6 per subscriber from cable and satellite providers in retransmission fees; TBS, Disney, TNT and CNN – all included on Sling TV — attract under $5 per subscriber combined. While no financial details on each network’s deal with Dish for the new service have been disclosed, offering your crown jewel in a packaged bundle without a cable subscription sounds like a bit of disruption, and a possible blueprint for a full-fledged standalone service.

WatchESPN’s biggest and sloppiest sports weekend in its nearly four year existence was a dry-run of sorts. But sloppy or not, it may have ensured you never watch ESPN the same way again.