Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fringe Sports: Live in a Cubicle Near You!

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on April 13, 2006.)

While reviewing the media coverage of Eastern League teams last week, I was struck by how many of them offer streaming online game broadcasts. Given how much revenue and exposure this has meant to center sports like the MLB and the NCAA basketball tournament, this could have huge implications in the long run for minor league teams and other fringe sports.

Two blog entries from a year ago introduce the possibilities: What’s On Tonight’s piece on the Ontario Hockey League’s streaming video offer from last spring (still available) and a piece by Thomas Hawke at Digital Connection that looks at how demand for minor league sports could make online broadcasting of them a thriving industry. Hawke’s piece is particularly instructive – although he sadly misremembers Dodgeball when he claims the championship game was broadcast on ESPN 6 and not ESPN 8, the Ocho. Even though Hawke seems to be unsure as to whether he’s writing about traditional broadcast television or streaming video, his argument that people who want to watch minor league baseball games have a much stronger urge to do so makes the industry of broadcasting fringe sports very promising.

As advertising and broadcasting – and really the entire population – become more niche oriented, that opens up a lot of broadcast possibilities for minor league sports teams and other fringe sports like lacrosse. Those small and specific audiences will find the programming they want; they won’t be satisfied with whatever center sports are on ESPN or MLBAM. Television may provide some of those possibilities, but online broadcasting seems to make more sense: there’s a lower start up cost, easier to arrange a portal for consumers to get the product, and teams (at least in theory) retain greater control.

The OHL streaming video offer that What’s On Tonight wrote about is a good example of this. According to the initial press release, OHL is partnering with Interactive Netcasting Systems through 2008 to broadcast online more than 2,000 OHL games. While the package was free during the end of last year’s regular season, 2005 playoff games were $8.95 a game and viewing packages were available for this season. Although it’s a little unclear on the website, regular season games are still free this season, but playoff prices have changed. Single games are $6.95, archived games (even regular season ones) are $3.95, a playoff series is $16.95, and the entire playoffs for $99.95.

Lacrosse is trying to do something similar with LaXcast, although the effort only started during last year’s collegiate championships and is still in its infancy. The LaXcast effort is much more ambitious than OHL’s league wide online broadcast package. OHL is composed of 20 teams, each with a schedule the league creates. LaXcast wants to cover three divisions of college lacrosse play, not to mention professional lacrosse. Currently, the online broadcasts and podcasts are relatively limited to weekly shows and occasional interviews. What will be interesting is how their game coverage picks up again when college tournaments start.

What the OHL does and LaXcast is attempting to do – organize a central location for online broadcasting and viewing – is the opposite of minor league baseball online broadcasting. Huge shock – professional baseball not centrally organizing well. Call 60 Minutes.

That doesn’t mean that the decentralized broadcasting isn’t good. Even a team like the Connecticut Defenders – in a town with no television stations – has an online radio broadcast contract with SportsJuice.com. SportsJuice is an interesting operation, a testament to fringe sports in online broadcasting. The website carries an extensive array of minor league, collegiate, and even amateur sports radio broadcasts. And some of these teams and leagues are OBSCURE. I write about fringe sports and live in New England, but I’ve never even heard of the New England Football League (“New England’s Premier Semi Pro Football League”), yet it appears to be thriving. Or at least it’s thriving enough to have A, AA, and AAA levels. Nonetheless, during the season, SportsJuice broadcasts the games of one of their teams, the Monadnock Marauders. They’re even from New Hampshire.

And it also shouldn’t be suggested that there aren’t some very solid efforts at centralizing the internet broadcasting of minor league baseball games. An offshoot of mlb.com, minorleaguebaseball.com, makes a very solid attempt at organizing information on all affiliated minor league teams and leagues: line ups, schedules, statistics, etc. The site also has an impressive array of online broadcasts of minor league games, including all AAA teams. The broadcasts include streaming video and streaming audio. Given the ties to MLB, I would imagine that those broadcasts are empowered by MLBAM, although that seems to be a well kept secret.

The NCAA has close ties with ESPN and CBS, but even it’s trying to get further into the online broadcasting game. The first example is obviously the online portal for viewing the NCAA basketball tournament this year. But the NCAA wants broadcasters to have the option of buying rights to other sports too. There is a form with guidelines that helps broadcasters get permission for internet broadcasts. The form also doubles as their radio permission request form. It will be interesting to see whether those two properties – traditional radio broadcast and online audio feed – are separated in the future.

But the really interesting part will be how these internet broadcasting venues funnel revenue to their respective sports and allow them to grow. In particular, I want to keep an eye on how LaXcast does in the next few years. Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the country and LaXcast has the potential to be very lucrative as well as influential in spreading lacrosse fandom. Fringe sports may have found a new way to grow that bucks the tradition of slow regional growth.

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