If we aren’t at the tipping point yet, we are getting close
I’m probably not unlike many other American soccer fans, in that my introduction to European “football” was through EA Sports’ venerable FIFA franchise. I started playing years ago, after my interest in the more competitive side of the sport was piqued during the 1994 World Cup, which was hosted here in the United States.
A few years later, I bought my first copy of FIFA for the PC, and was introduced to the expansive world of European Club Football. There were hundreds of teams spread out in leagues all across the continent, loaded with some players who’s names I knew from my World Cup watching, but many more who I had never heard of.
One of the challenges I always liked in FIFA was the managerial and directorial side of the sport. I enjoyed taking over a club that was in a lower division, and building them up for promotion and eventually a strong position in their nation’s top flight league. In fact, I will be picking up a copy of FIFA 18 for my Nintendo Switch on launch day, and I’m looking forward to getting back into it.
My nation of choice was usually England, and a few years ago, I latched onto Southampton as my reclamation club of choice. They were stuck in League One, the third division of English football, after a tough year on and off the field in 2009. In FIFA 2010, I picked them up and it turned out that the team was stocked with several young players who were of first division quality. I quickly moved them up the ranks and eventually won the Premier League with them a few virtual seasons later.
In the 2010-2011 season, the real Southampton club began a meteoric rise out of the basement of English football, taking 2nd place in League One and gaining promotion to the Championship, the English second division. A year later, the club took 2nd place there and accomplished the rare feat of back-to-back promotions, getting all the way back to the Premier League. All along the way, I took more and more notice, going from simply following box scores, to actively watching matches in 2012 and 13, when they made their Premiere League debut. That year, Fox and ESPN still held the rights to the EPL. While Southampton making one of the prime broadcasts was pretty rare since they were just fighting to stave off relegation, they did make appearances on ESPN 3 and the WatchESPN app, which I definitely took advantage off.
The next season, things really took off, as NBC won the rights to broadcast the EPL here in the US, and they went ALL IN, showing games on both their NBC Sports channel and NBC. Even better, NBC made ALL EPL matches available to stream for free via their NBC Sports Live Extras app for iOS and Android for those with cable subscriptions. I was able to watch the Saints anytime they played a league match, and I loved it. This definitely helped to cement me as a more dedicated fan, even though I have no other tangible connection to the club. There are plenty of American EPL fans who similarly chose their clubs either by playing FIFA, or following particular players.
This setup lasted for the next three seasons, with the NBC Live Extras app and the coverage both gradually improving over that time. However, I got a rude awakening this morning when I fired up the NBC Sports app to catch the 2nd half of the Southampton-Swansea City opening day match. I saw an icon prompting me to go to another app called NBC Sports Gold. I was immediately concerned, and that concern was well-founded.
NBC has made a decision that I fear we will begin to see all too often in the near future. They have decided, even though their coverage of the EPL has been well received and profitable for them, to hit their consumers up for more in the name of serving cord cutters. However, what they are selling isn’t good for cable subscribers, cord cutters, or anyone else but NBC. It’s a money grab, pure and simple, and it screws everyone over pretty equally.
If you are a cord cutter, you can sign up for NBC Sports Gold’s Premiere League Pass for $49.99 without a cable subscription. This will get you access to 130 live league games, replays, and other content. Great, right? Not really. There are 250 Premiere League games that will be broadcast on NBC channels that said cord cutters will be cut out of. I guess getting some access is better than having none, but if you are a fan of one of the top 5 EPL clubs, don’t waste your time paying for this package. You’ll hardly ever see them except on replays.
For the rest of us cable subscribers, we get the aforementioned 250 games, but lose access to what NBC has provided free with a cable subscription for the last four years. If you are a follower of a mid-table club like me, you will likely be missing out on a sizable chunk of matches per year. You also won’t have the benefit of being able to watch match replays as in the past, as they have also been moved over to the premium service. The only way to get access to all of the games and replays of any matches is to both have a cable subscription AND cough up an extra $50 per year.
Sports fans in the US are no stranger to paying up to watch professional sports. NFL Sunday Ticket is ridiculously expensive, and is limited to just one satellite network, DirecTV. Then you have MLB At Bat and NBA League Pass, which aren’t restricted to a single network, but certainly aren’t inexpensive, either. However, when you look at all of these packages, they are all geared toward those fans who want to watch a team that isn’t in their current local market. In fact, in all of the above cases, you CANNOT stream games for your local team without using a VPN and breaking the rules. These aren’t meant to be cord cutting solutions, or a way to watch your local team online.
As for local access, I live in the Memphis, TN metro area, and I have no problem watching Memphis Grizzlies games. I could count on one hand the number that aren’t broadcast on our regional cable sports network, and I can easily get them on radio. This is the same for all major league professional sports teams. They have local broadcast television and radio broadcast deals, so local fans have no issues keeping up with their home teams if they have cable. In some cases, cable isn’t even required.
The situation is even better for college sports fans who are cable subscribers. I am a HUGE college football and basketball fan, and also follow my LSU Tigers (as well as my hometown Memphis Tigers) very closely in other sports, such as baseball, softball, and track. With all of the channels and coverage available from ESPN, Fox, NBC, and CBS, as well as the more recent trend of league-specific channels, there is very little that I can’t watch. In fact, on the rare occasion that LSU or Memphis aren’t on a broadcast channel somewhere (in football and basketball, at least), I can almost always stream the game thanks to one of the aforementioned networks.
Unfortunately, this is all quickly coming to an end, and it is directly because of cord cutting. For those who just don’t care about watching traditional content at all, more power to you. However, that isn’t the majority of people I hear from, who talk about cutting the cord, but still wanting to watch all the same things as before, but for less money. I can understand the desire to watch content via the web, and to also choose packages of channels a la carte to watch wherever you wish. However, what many people who cut that cord don’t realize is that they are simultaneously cutting up their only leverage as purchasers. Once the pooled channel packages of current cable networks are gone, so is the purchasing power and overall value that came with them. Those niche networks that once survived as part of a package will suddenly cost you FAR more when you have to go get them by themselves. Such networks will have to dramatically raise prices to survive on their limited audiences, or just die out.
Maybe this sounds like a good idea to many of you. Cull the herd. Weed out the weak and unnecessary cable channels, right? How about when that channel is one that you like to watch? The fact is, this squeeze will affect all channels no matter how big they are, and no matter what niche you enjoy, you will pay more than you pay today for the privilege of continuing to watch. If your favorites survive the coming shake-out, that is. And as the herd dies off, you will ultimately have a far lesser selection of other channels to watch in total.
We are rushing head-long into an era that will end what many call “The Golden Age of Television,” kill off ubiquitous live sports programming (ESPN is already hemorrhaging money), and lead to an individual charge on all content of any quality. And the guys who are holding your money at the end of the day? The same ones who were selling you cable. They’ll just be selling you data plans with a cap, while peddling whatever content they happen to own. Thanks to the end of Net Neutrality, they will also be free to charge your favorite pay services extra, and limit your access to alternate content sources. This will, in turn, cost you more and more in subscription fees, and make you choose your content, to at least some degree, based on your data provider. In trying to take power away from the big cable companies, cord cutters are actually handing them and a small number of services like Netflix and HBO even more.
My reason for digging in on NBC is that they have created a solution that really doesn’t benefit any group of consumers, and actively degrades something that they were previously offering cable subscribers without extra charge. Make no mistake- we were and are being charged through our cable bills. Now on the other hand, it’s a free country, and NBC is well within its rights to charge extra for this service, the same as consumers like myself are free to complain about getting lesser service with little warning. That, and the outright lie that this move has anything to do with cord cutting hurting them yet. Their EPL coverage has been a big hit, so much so that they’ve already re-uped the contract for additional years.
Selling this NBC Sports Gold premium service as a benefit to cord cutters is just cover for flexing their muscles and using a popular product to hit fans up for more cash because they can. Disney’s move away from Netflix this week to create their own streaming service, a service that won’t include two of their most valuable properties, is just another example. These moves are simply the leading edge of a wave that is going to see US consumers consistently paying more and more money for less and less actual content. The rise of cord cutting just gives those in an advantageous position a ready-made excuse, along with the power to cash in right now.
NBC just happened to be the match that lit the fuse for a rant that’s been coming for a year or so now. Tech fans and fellow tech writers are largely on the leading edge of this wave or cord cutting that I will resist until the bitter end, so I know full well that many of you will disagree with me on this. However, just look at the cost of a current slim channel plan such as Sling TV or YouTube TV, plus Netflix, plus Amazon Prime, plus Hulu, plus your Internet access fee and get back to me. That isn’t the endgame, folks. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Whatever your interest is, either prepare to pay up even more to watch it, or find another way to follow along. I really wish Steve Jobs could have saved us from this with a better way forward that could have come sooner, but I think this problem was beyond even him.
I’m sure some of you will call me spoiled, and maybe I am. A consumer like me has had it pretty good for a while now. I am just fine with paying the combined Cable and Internet bill, which is FAR cheaper than any other local competitor can offer for both by $50 or more dollars, and getting the majority of the content I want to watch across several channels. If not wanting to see half those channels go out of existence and having to pay more for less is spoiled, then I guess the shoe fits and fire away. What really bothers me, and the real reason I decided to write this today, is the extreme lack of recognition over what is actually about to happen among your average joes who brandish the cord cutting banner these days.
At the end of the day, consumers have the freedom to do what they want. Those who don’t want cable can leave it behind. We don’t have to pay extra for things we don’t need when the hand extends for more. I’m sure as hell not paying NBC and extra $50 to watch every EPL game, even though it means I will miss several Saints matches. What concerns me is when EVERY provider comes calling with that extra fee in the name of cord cutting, because that’s what’s coming soon.
What makes me laugh are the cord cutters who think some kind of digital utopia where they have all the power, prices come down, value goes up, and the same caliber of content awaits them after the “death of cable.” What actually awaits them, and all the rest of us thanks to this growing tide, is even more power in the hands of fewer providers, less choice, and much higher prices. We will all know the real price of cutting the cord before too long, whether we actually did the cutting, or not. The purchasing power and overall value of the traditional cable package may not look so bad in a few short years.
What do you think about cord cutting, cable plans, and the beginning of rising costs of a la carte channels and content? Let me know in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.