I wanted this NWSL season-opening column to be about the Canadian players in the league.
But, instead of focusing on the fact Christine Sinclair opened her NWSL account with a penalty-kick goal that gave her Portland Thorns a draw with FC Kansas City on Saturday, I need to discuss something very troubling about the league’s opening weekend. And this doesn’t reflect not only my opinion, but what I’ve heard and read from the readers of this site. These are people, like me, who desperately want to see women’s soccer have a viable professional home in North America.
And that opinion? That “minor league” would be overstating just how poor the league’s efforts were in communicating its product to its fans and, more importantly, to its potential fans.
As most of the sporting world had their eyes on the Angel Cabrera/Adam Scott playoff in the Masters, I was one of the women’s soccer loyalists who tried to take in as much of the Sunday action as I could from the league’s opening weekend.
And what I am about to write doesn’t come easily. As someone who works in the broadcast world, to actually criticize the work of others is a dangerous thing to do. I work in a profession in which bridge-burning is a career-killer. And, heck, from calling FC Edmonton games, I know what it’s like to try and cover soccer on turf covered in football lines, just like we saw in the NWSL stadiums.
But, here goes.
The conversations among the women’s soccer loyalists weren’t about the quality of play on the field — they were about the quality (as in, poor) of the broadcasts the league offered to its fans. For us in Canada, these webcasts offer the chance to regularly check in on the members of our national program who now call the NWSL home. And, for American fans of the game outside of the home stadiums, they give them the chance to see league action, which could lead to ticket sales or merchandise orders down the road.
By the time the opening weekend of games had wrapped on Sunday night, the NWSL received a massive F grade for its webcasting efforts.
On Sunday, three games kicked off in the late afternoon: The Western New York Flash at Sky Blue FC; the Chicago Red Stars hosting the Seattle Reign and the Boston Breakers at home to the Washington Spirit.
The Red Stars’ web stream was almost impossible to watch for three minutes straight. It kept stalling, and I wasn’t alone in my frustration. It was echoed on Twitter. And those angry viewers included Canadian forward Tiffany Cameron, who will begin her Seattle Reign career in week three of the NWSL season. She openly expressed her frustration via her Twitter account:
“It would be kind of cool if the streaming video on the Chicago website for 2nd half would actually load. #frustated.
“LMAO people are straight cutting up Chicago’s live streaming on Youtube… lol I’m here reading the comments and dying of laughter.”
There you go. One of NWSL’s own players laughing at the quality of her league’s broadcasting efforts. That’s just great.
So, I jumped over to the Sky Blue stream. On YouTube, it was almost impossible to bear. One camera, that felt to the viewer like it was a hand-held, jumped as the operator tried to follow the ball on the field. The camera shot bobbled up and down. Sometimes, shots showed the back of spectators’ heads if the ball came to the near sideline. There was no sense ever of where the ball was on the field, or who was playing where. The players had a quality like they were floating in space, because of the way the camera couldn’t keep a straight line.
Let’s make this clear — these were production standards that were far below even the most tight-budgeted of the USL and NASL free live streams.
Oh, and this is a key word, free. Because the Boston Breakers stream wasn’t. When you got to the Breakers’ streaming page, the potential viewer was informed that each broadcast would be done as a pay-per-view; that is, each stream would cost US$4.99.
I understand that each and every team is looking at creating revenue streams off the bat. And there is a school of thought that if you start giving something away for free on the Internet, it’s almost impossible to slap a value on it later. Newspapers are struggling with this, as more and more put up paywalls to protect the material they have been giving away for years. Heck, I struggle with it when it comes to this website. I ask myself if I’m simply giving away too much content for free. But in a world where all my competitors/friends give away their material for free, a pay-for-content system won’t work until we all get together and, well, collude on price points.
I also understand a team’s need to have a webcast pay for itself. There are leagues that have initiatives to put their games online, such as NASL and USL. And that forces owners to pay to get their home games out there. Cameras. Crews. Trucks. Some are lucky enough to have TV and radio partners. Some aren’t.
But, in the NWSL case, if PPV streaming is going to work, it needs to be done as a league-wide strategy. It can’t be one team deciding that each broadcast is worth five bucks. Sorry, but it reeks of magicJack — one team deciding to divorce itself from league initiatives. Now, compare the Breakers price point to that of MLS Live. You can get 230 streams of MLS matches for a total of US$59.99 a season. That’s just a little more than a quarter per match. So, the Breakers price point per broadcast is roughly 20 times what an MLS games is valued online.
Now, I get it, MLS has sponsorships and such, so the key is just to get the broadcasts onto the screens. NWSL isn’t there yet when it comes to “your product here.” But in a world when NASL and USL (the home of the W-League) makes their webcasts available free of charge, it will be hard for the Boston Breakers alone to get people to believe an NWSL game is worth $4.99.
The Breakers promised multiple cameras and a professional crew, but got a lot of complaints about streams not working. After their 1-1 draw with Washington, the team apologized for the technical issues and said they’d be resolved by the next home match. (Some missed Washington and Canada midfielder Diana Matheson smack a long-range drive off the bar)
Sky Blue beat the Flash 1-0 and the Red Stars and Reign played to a 1-1 draw.
But, in terms of getting games out to their fans, NWSL has some serious soul-searching to do. Because the opening weekend didn’t reflect well on the new league at all.