blank'/> THE PUCK REPORT: Online Piracy Goes Live

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Online Piracy Goes Live

Once a distribution issue reserved to reek havoc on the revenues of the music and film industries, the New York Times reveals that piracy has migrated to the playing field of the four major North American sports leagues targeting their live product.

With laughable cable options and overpriced almost-all-inclusive television packages, the NHL has taken matters into their own hands and plagiarized their way into the 21st century. For years, Commissioner Gary Bettman has matched his protégé David Stern's management strategies stride for stride, alienating diehard fans and burying much of its tradition in the process. Last year the NHL turned its attention to MLB and learned their website revealed a mighty live game transmission technology.

Realizing ESPN was likely never again going to air NHL hockey and unsatisfied with the reach of their sole content provider, an obscure bull riding cable channel inspired by Outdoor Life magazine, the league launched NHL GameCenter in April 2007. No longer would they have to worry about satellite and cable providers refusing to carry their channel. No longer would they fall victim to embarrassing Heidi Game moments, for example when NBC left the overtime period of the 2007 Eastern Conference Final in favor of hours of pre-race Preakness Stakes coverage. And no longer would Bettman have to utter make nonsensical statements about their weak ratings such as "we don't have to apologize to anybody for what we are."

You’re right Mr. Bettman, you don’t have to apologize. And neither does the comedy king of West Virginia for dishing out a Barney Fife beating on the 2007 NHL All Star game. Eighty-five percent more viewers watching a TV Land rerun of The Andy Griffiths Show than the NHL’s finest performing in an All Star Game on NBC? Ouch.

But that was the past. GameCenter is live and the future is bright. For the NHL, delivering action online promises a reliable and readily available source for fans to access games. And perhaps one day, a much needed revenue stream to supplement gate receipts.

It should be noted that differences exist between the business models of baseball and hockey, and these subtleties ought to be considered in the NHL's online offering. Most notably, the former has fans and lucrative television contracts. At $21 per month GameCenter may seem like a pretty good deal. Pretty good that is, if you didn't know that MLB offers twice the games for half the price and rolled out their first online season gratis. Under the circumstances, perhaps the appropriate price point for NHL GameCenter is free. The online feed should complement a fan's viewing options, not hold them hostage and gouge them for failing to offer viable alternatives. If free doesn't fit the bill, then why not borrow from another company that's had some experience selling online content, Apple. 99 cents a game.

If there's a lesson to be learned from the wreckage of the once lucrative recorded music industry, it's that consumers will follow the path of least resistance to fulfill their wants and needs. With websites offering pirated versions of live NHL games for free, a bite-sized price point is needed to socialize existing fans and welcome new ones to the NHL's GameCenter space. Just because you built it, doesn't mean they will come. Savvy?