Saturday, October 10, 2009

Watching the future

If something amazing happens in tonight's England match will people remember where they were?
"When Rooney stabbed the referee? I remember it well. I was sat in my study, on my own. I remember Skypeing my best mate to talk about it but he wasn't online."
"Of course I remember where I was when Capello punched John Terry. I was lying on the couch in the front room watching it on my laptop with a cup of tea."
It's clear, with tonight's England game showing online only, that our shared experiences are on the verge of changing. This is a meaningless game, the dead rubber of old, but it represents a massive night in our understanding of sports broadcasting.

Scotland almost got there first. The original plan was to show this morning's Japan clash live online for free. For technical reasons the SFA failed to pull this off (No comment – Ed.) so BBC Scotland, somewhat grudgingly you feel, stepped into the breach.

Watching matches online is not new. Illegal streaming sites are increasingly popular and consistently one step ahead of the authorities trying to shut them down. Major championship games online offer office workers the chance to preserve their holidays but keep up with the action.

But these are alternatives, additional online broadcasts, used by those who can't get to the TV or who can't or won't send their hard earned cash into the deep, deep pockets of Rupert Murdoch and his ilk.

Tonight there is no other way to watch England and Ukraine. Online is the only show in town.

That the technology so far only allows one million people to subscribe is unfortunate. That the quality of the picture means watching the game is likely to be a fairly solitary experience removes something crucial from our enjoyment of watching football as well as striking another blow against the embattled pub trade.

Our surprise, however, shouldn't be about the game being shown online, only that it has happened so quickly. Circumstances, Setanta going bankrupt, ITV's financial woes, scrutiny of the BBC's expenditure (and lingering resentment within the corporation over the loss of the FA contract), left this match without a traditional home.

For any enterprising organisation that vacuum left an opportunity and, as is increasingly common, it was an online company that stepped into the breach.

In doing so they have given us a glimpse of the future. The traditional media is facing untold competition from the new media. Witness the Murdoch clan's increasingly hysterical attacks on the BBC. The focus of their ire now – whether they choose to admit it or not – is the BBC's online presence and the major obstacle it puts in the way of Rupert charging people to use his inferior websites.

It's clear that many traditional media outlets don't know how to react to an online world. New media companies are ahead of the game. That gives the consumer more choice but it will also change aspects of our life that had previously seemed sacrosanct.

That includes how we consume (and yes I hate using that word but in this context it seems right) our football. The technology will get better, games will become cheaper, online firms will become more tenacious and online football will become more and more common.

The BBC iPlayer and its commercial equivalents are the beginning of the merging of our computers and our televisions. Watching football online will become as common as catching up with EastEnders or Coronation Street.

It will give fans more choice and it will increase the already seemingly endless coverage of the game. It will also change the way clubs interact with broadcasters. It will have a huge impact on the way in which rights are distributed and the sums of money involved.

Clubs should already be looking in to the ways in which they can exploit this new terrain. I'm still not convinced many, or any, clubs have quite managed to get their online presence just right yet. Live football online could be one way of taking a club's web strategy to the next level. Are we too far away from a big club negotiating opt outs in central TV contracts to show their big matches online?

I don't think we are. Today is the opening salvo in a battle for broadcast football that will dominate the next 15 years.

Some fans won't be happy and some will miss out. Some clubs will make a better fist of maximizing their earnings than others. If you're watching the game today or not in the years to come you'll remember where you were when England played in Dnipro. Today's the day that football changes.

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