Internet fight to black out UC hoops
By James Pilcher • firstname.lastname@example.org
• January 23, 2009
Want to watch the University of Cincinnati men's basketball team play its home game against 12th-ranked Georgetown? The only two ways are to buy a ticket - or go to a friend's house in Kentucky who uses Insight for Internet access.
That UC game and three more will only be available through ESPN's online outlet ESPN360. But that "channel" does not have broadcast agreements with Greater Cincinnati's major Internet service providers Cincinnati Bell and Time Warner Cable. ESPN can block access to video streams by identifying a potential user's service provider by their individual Internet address - and providers without an agreement do not get access to the games.
Insight Communications, the cable provider and an Internet provider in Northern Kentucky, does have such an agreement, so games on ESPN360 can be viewed by its users. The game also will be available to students who use UC's Internet service on campus as well as those using military Internet access.
UC has the most games being carried exclusively online on the Bristol, Conn.-based network's online channel among major college basketball teams with ESPN contracts. Two of those four games are against ranked opponents (including the Feb. 4 matchup against No. 19 Notre Dame); all are at home.
"I never miss a UC game either in person or online, and if this means I really have to miss it, then yeah, I'll be pretty upset," said Jon Kniskern, a 29-year-old UC fan and executive recruiter from Anderson Township. "I think UC should work with ESPN to figure out a way to show it on an alternate channel, even online.
"But if that doesn't happen, I guess I'll either be at the Shoemaker Center or I'll try and somehow get around the restrictions. At least I won't have to put up with (ESPN announcer) Dick Vitale."
ESPN executive vice president for affiliate sales and marketing David Preschlack would not comment on negotiations with either Bell or Time Warner.
But he said that the situation is akin to a new broadcast network starting up. He said that ESPN360 is available to 45 Internet providers nationally, covering about 40 percent of the population.
"If it weren't for this service, the game wouldn't be seen at all," Preschlack said. "Would we like to be at 100 percent? Yes, of course, and I think it is a question of not if, but when we get them done."
Cincinnati Bell spokeswoman Lisa McLaughlin said the downtown-based phone company "has had and continues to have discussions with ESPN to offer ESPN360," but declined comment on negotiating issues involving the company's ZoomTown high-speed Internet division.
Officials with Time Warner Cable did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The shift to online
The potential blackout highlights the growth and importance of live sporting events being streamed online, an exploding trend that is hitting all levels of sports from high school football to the top of the sports food chain: the Olympics, PGA golf, the NFL and Major League Baseball.
Neal Page, chief executive officer and founder of North Carolina-based streaming video company Inlet Technologies, predicts that revenues from online sports viewing will grow from $762 million in 2007 to more than $2.3 billion in 2012.
"Sports streaming is relatively much less expensive, and as more people become more comfortable with Web video, it will only explode," Page said, while noting that live events still cost more than just posting video files online. "Plus, you can show sports with limited following and still make money off it."
UC senior associate athletic director Mike Waddell said that the school will take whatever exposure it can get, pointing out that it already streams other sports online on its own Web site.
"Television is first and foremost a recruiting tool for us for both student athletes as well as high-quality students," Waddell said. "And this is national and worldwide."
Yet the issues also highlight problems with transferring content usually reserved for television onto the free-wheeling Internet.
In this case, ESPN has only contracted with 45 Internet providers nationally, and traditional telephone providers making up most of that list. Verizon, the nation's largest phone company, also hosts and serves ESPN's content, and has had several skirmishes with cable companies in the past over content.
ESPN paid more than $40 million for Big East football and basketball broadcast rights. But network officials point out that UC will get more net exposure this year than last - with the network broadcasting 22 games total on its various channels, including the four online. That compares with a total of 17 last year, including one online.
"We feel bad for the fans who can't see it, but this is growing pains," said Big East associate commissioner Tom Odakjian, who also has worked for ESPN. "It would have gone untelevised otherwise, although they are now required to carry it at least on ESPN360 if they don't carry it anywhere else. And the hope is that like other ESPN ventures in the past, it will grow."
Problems during Olympics
The issue has popped up before on a much bigger scale. Last summer, NBC scrambled to block U.S. Web surfers from watching live streams of the Opening Ceremonies from the Beijing Summer Olympics to protect the network's tape-delayed broadcast.
Major League Baseball also has a robust subscription service that allows viewers to watch any game at any time live on a computer, but blocks hometown viewers from watching hometown teams, including the Cincinnati Reds, to help protect local broadcast agreements.
And the National Football League allows Yahoo to stream its Sunday afternoon games online, but only to viewers outside the U.S. (The site does simulcast NBC's Sunday Night Football online for free in the U.S. as well).
"There really isn't any limitation on the audience or the technology, but where it gets confused is when you start bringing in broadcast rights and league fees," said Dave Morgan, head of professional sports for Yahoo Sports.
Even high schools are getting in on the act, even if they aren't into the money.
Elder High School has been streaming its live sporting events since 2001, and now can expect more than 1,300 viewers for a home football game on Friday nights. School officials even recount tales of Elder alums in Florida and California calling each other to play streaming audio to each other on the phone.
"Everyone gets a chance to man the camera, or do the play-by-play or whatever they want - the kids run the show on this one," says Dave Rapien, a part-time teacher at the East Price Hill school and computer consultant who heads the program. "Really, all you need is a laptop, a camera or two, and an Internet connection and you're off and running."
Staff writer David Holthaus contributed.