Posted by Matt Egan 26 August 2014
Apps watch: What the NFL can teach UK sports such as cricket and rugby
The NFL's Game Pass app is a great way to watch every game of American Football, live and on demand. UK sports need to learn and adapt to keep up.
As a child of West Yorkshire I grew up loving football and cricket, both playing and watching. I still do, although these days my playing is confined to a weekly game of 7-a-side, I will take the chance to watch either sport whenever I get the opportunity. As a consequence I am Sky's dream customer, prepared to pay for all of the Sky Sports channels, a BT Sport subscriber who isn't a flight risk.
It's a vice, but it works for me. After all with Sky Sports I also get to watch other sports that I love, such as Rugby of both codes, golf, and American Football. Sport on grass (real or artificial).
I came late to NFL. I wasn't one of the Channel 4 fans in the 80s, being hooked in rather by the Sky coverage that follows the 4pm footie match each Sunday during the regular season. As with other sports that can reasonably be described as minority sports in the UK, Sky puts in a decent amount of effort to ensure that both expert- and newbie fans are catered for, with in-depth coverage and a willingness to explain what is going on to the uninitiated.
It took a couple of years, but I am now firmly hooked on NFL. It's a sport of physical strength and grace, but also one of great technical and tactical ingenuity. And it being major league US sport, it is a sport finessed to ensure that the worst teams get better, and every contest reaches a climax. A sport made for watching on screen.
And even outside of its home market, the NFL is teaching other sports how to market a sport in a region in which it struggles to get mainstream press coverage. You will be aware I am sure of the regular season games that take place at Wembley each season. Less so of the festival of gridiron that goes on around each fixture, with fan rallies and exhibitions aimed at fanning the flames of interest in those supporters who chose to attend the game.
There is an excellent free podcast - Inside the Huddle - produced by NFL UK and the Sky presenter Neil Reynolds, dedicated to explaining and promoting the NFL to UK fans.
And then there is the key to the NFL's UK expansion plans: the NFL Game Pass app. Game Pass is where the NFL is teaching sports such as cricket and Rugby League a lesson in how to expand your userbase when regular exposure to free-to-air TV is impossible to come by. (See also: Why apps need to be more expensive.)
NFL Game Pass: all the football, all the time
Game Pass is, simply, a means of watching every game played in the NFL, via web browser or app. Free to download and try, it costs up to £120 for a season pass, although it is much cheaper just to watch a single team for the regular season. For that full price you can watch all 260 regular- and post-season games, live or on demand. You can also watch games as highlights packages, or check out games from the past five years.
None of this is technically all that tricky to do. What impresses me is the offering itself. The price is not staggering: I'd wager that this isn't primarily a profit-making excercise for the NFL. But for the price of a particularly generous Christmas present, or a year's pocket money, a future NFL fan can watch all the sports his or her eyes can take. Whenever and wherever they want.
This is important. For sports such as cricket and Rugby League, most Rugby Union and - yes - football in the lower leagues, there is little to no chance for anyone growing up in a non-Sky household to watch their heroes in action. And that is a problem for future ticket sales and sponsorship. The internet levels the playing fields in all areas of marketing, and as the sports fan becomes more sofa bound, those sports that adapt quickest to the technology can make great gains. (See also: The future of smartwatch apps.)
What cricket can learn from the NFL
Taking cricket as an example, Sky Sports (them again) does a brilliant job of covering the international game and the sharp end of the domestic limited overs competitions. But you will struggle in vain to find any live coverage of domestic County Championship cricket. The BBC fills the breach with an excellent service that sees local radio stations providing commentary of every game, accessible via the internet. But if you offered my an app that could allow me to see every ball bowled by Yorkshire this summer, you could have my credit card details in seconds. This is how Major League Baseball works in the US, by the way.
Yes, there is a cost associated with filming live sport, but the BBC covered cricket for generations with a single camera posted at one end of the ground. Given the millions of cricket fans who follow county cricket via websites, newspapers and radio I expect the audience would pay for this. And if not, there's no future for domestic cricket in this country.
I suspect this model could help sustain domestic Rugby League and Rugby Union, as well as lower league football. If not in the UK where TV contracts dictate that live footage is the exclusive preserve of the broadcasters involved, then at least throughout the rest of the world. But even within the UK, I do wonder whether there isn't a deal to be done.
Professional Rugby League in the UK is largely funded by the Sky Sports TV deal. But Sky has proven in the past to be innovative and flexible organisation. Couldn't there be a deal by which Sky broadcasts the pick of each week's games, and the rest are available to stream by each club's subscribers? The broadcaster could take a share of the profit.
Regardless - and in part because it isn't a UK sport bound by the constraints of a big TV deal - the NFL is leading the way in using internet and mobile technology to attract and retain new fans. And in this football-dominated world, other favourite UK sports need to react to survive and prosper.