State of Streaming 2017 Part 2 — Squandering Cable’s Last Best Hope

There’s a bright shiny future of watching whatever you want, when you want, where you want and on the device of your choice. Alas, despite years of effort and probably billions of dollars that future seems as far away today as ever for most sports fans. Just about everyone else can cut the cord and save the $103 monthly cable bill without too much pain. But as I explained in Part 1 of this series, for football fans — at least, you’re out of luck.

But what about Hockey and Baseball? My experience over the last six months with these sports is better, particularly for out-of-town fans. Unfortunately, unlike football, those who pay for the pricey sports package are often out of luck when it comes to taking those games you’ve already paid for on the go.

Baseball does it right. As a Mets fan living in San Francisco, I tried MLB.TV when it launched 15 years ago, but it was a poor (albeit cheaper) alternative to the $200+ package offered by DirecTV

Both services blacked the Mets out only when they were playing the Giants, and my local TV options meant I got to see most of those games anyway. I could live with that. And at $85 to stream a single team, the streaming service offers considerable savings over DirecTV’s monthly subscription and baseball package. So, last year I decided to try again. MLB.TV streams on just about every device you’d want to see it on, but the product quality varies significantly. I still found the Roku version substandard compared to DirecTV’s DVR. The XBOX One version wasn’t much better, but on my PS4 the implementation shined. If you’re an out of market baseball fan, you can save a LOT of money by cutting the cord and paying for MLB.TV — and running it on a Playstation. (Story continued below…)

If you’re a local fan, you’re still mostly out of luck. You’re on the hook for a cable or satellite subscription and an additional subscription to the local “Regional Sports Network”.

Like baseball, out of market hockey fans have an imperfect alternative, NHL.TV. This streaming service promises out-of market NHL games, but has a byzantine blackout policy which can frustrate most fans. And even when you’ve purchased a cable TV package that includes your local team, it can be exasperating — if not impossible — to watch those games when you’re on the road.

I ran into this issue a few weeks ago, trying to watch a San Jose Sharks game in Washington DC — a game I’d already paid for. As I mentioned in part one, I’m a DirecTV customer in Northern California, and I pay for the sports package, which includes Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. The Sharks recently announced that all their games would be streaming live for SportsNet Bay Area subscribers.

This was music to my ears as I’d already tried and failed many times to use DirecTV’s DVR anywhere to watch Sharks games while travelling (DirecTV’s epic non-Sunday Ticket streaming failures are worth an entire column all on their own).

I did get to stream the game, but not on my device of choice — and after jumping way too many hurdles. Initially I wanted to stream to an android tablet and then “Miracast” that game to my hotel TV using the Kindle Fire stick I carry everywhere. But that proved impossible even when I tried it on two separate Android devices and a Windows 10 Surface Book. I fumbled through NBC Sports App errors, live video feeds of empty studios, and finally was offered a Washington Capitals game instead of the San Jose Sharks — which probably broke half a dozen blackout rules. Luckily I finally got it working on my Surface Book, but never could cast the game to my TV. The NBC Sports App doesn’t (yet) support the FireTV, but I tried again a few days later with a Roku and it worked fine.

Even so, hockey fans have it even worse than baseball fans. Out of market fans often get bit by the strange black-out rules, and even local fans have problems streaming games they’ve already paid for while out of the house.

So, what’s the conclusion? Today most sports fans will not be able to cut the cord and see their teams play. Even out of market fans — except for baseball — are out of luck today. (Note, I’m not a basketball fan, so feel free to share your experiences in the comments).

New options promise to alleviate some of the pain. As I discussed in part one, Verizon streams football to their phones only, but you can’t cast them to TVs or any other devices. European football (aka soccer) fans can stream many of their favorite teams for $10 a month on Fubo.TV while Sportle offers a variety of free games, but mostly of sports and teams you’ve never heard of (who knew “Floorball” was a thing?). And a variety of YouTube channels, including The Fumble and Football Daily offer news and commentary that can rival what you get on traditional networks. But to watch most games in the US, you’ll need traditional TV.

These sports fans are clearly the most important customer segment for traditional multi-channel providers. If they truly want to stem the cord-cutting tide, they need to make watching your favorite team drop dead simple. If you’ve paid for it, you should be able to easily watch it wherever you are.

But surprisingly, even when you pay a small fortune to your Cable or Satellite provider for that privilege, you’ll still be frustrated. I find these lapses incredible and unconscionable in 2017, when streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Go90 and others simply get things right nearly 100% of the time. Football does it better than most — but even that’s not perfect.

And those lapses just increases the resentment most fans have with these provider when they pay $1,200 or more annually to feed their habit. It drives them to explore other options — like my rediscovery of MLB.TV — both legal and illegal. And it means that when new options finally are available, most fans won’t hesitate to cut.

Cable and satellite could retain these users — as they are their last great hope. But based on my recent experiences, that’s not likely.

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