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Why YouTube Might Struggle To Enter Market For Sports Broadcasting

Let’s pretend for a moment.

You’re Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber. You’ve just spent the entire day talking to executives at ESPN, Fox Sports, and NBC Sports. Their pitches for the next round of MLS TV contracts have been less impressive than you had hoped. NBC said something about trying to improve ratings. ESPN went on about network inventory and losing the World Cup to Fox. Fox promised it would “do better this time around”. None of them excited you.

Then, as the business day is about to end, Google CEO Larry Page and YouTube boss Robert Kyncl walk into your office, throw down a briefcase containing $250 million and say, “Let’s put Major League Soccer on YouTube for the next three years and see what happens.”

Briefcase full of cash

The mere image of the briefcase full of cash has your attention. That $250 million is what NBCSN paid for the Premier League doesn’t hurt, either.

So you listen to Page and Kyncl’s pitch — a special MLS channel on YouTube with two free-to-stream matches per week, lots of highlight clips, a fantasy league show, some cool behind-the-scenes stuff, and a pay-per-view package that will let customers stream every match of every round for a small monthly or annual fee. They’ll even build and promote a free MLS app that works with their $35 Chromecast, so fans can simply dial up games on their phones and tablets — even the iOS devices! — and send them to their HDTVs for high-def viewing.

Page and Kyncl then remind you that YouTube is no stranger to sports broadcasting. In 2010, YouTube struck a deal for worldwide streaming rights to the Indian Premier League, a Twenty20 Cricket competition, and it renewed that deal last March. They might also mention that they met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about the NFL Sunday Ticket package, on the off-chance that this might impress upon you that YouTube really is serious about getting into American sports.

So, are you impressed? Do you like the cut of Robert Kyncl’s jib? Do you relish the notion of MLS jumping into the 21st century and being on the vanguard of sports streaming? Do you like having Google and YouTube as big-time corporate partners who give your growing league lots of cash?


Or do you stop to consider the consequences of taking the money and running?

For example, would MLS start to fade from the memories of non-hardcore supporters if it’s not cross-promoted with other major soccer properties on TV, like the Premier League on NBCSN and the UEFA Champions League on Fox Sports 1 and 2? Sure, YouTube can handle up to 8 million viewers on a live stream, but can they pull 209k viewers to the Seattle-Portland game like NBCSN did?

And even if they convince MLS fans to switch to this new Chromecast-centric paradigm of TV watching, will any casual sports fans bother with it? Is that the reason NFL Network president Steve Bornstein said that Google would “complement” the networks rather than “compete” with them?

What’s more, if the deal with YouTube proves to be a viewership flop, will the networks welcome MLS back, or will they save their money for the soccer leagues that attract more viewers?

What about the sports bars, who already spend a fortune on satellite TV? How many of them will bother to buy Chromecasts and upgrade their internet connections just for MLS? Will the league lose visibility if sports fans in bars can’t see it?

And how big a player is YouTube going to be in this arena anyway? Are they going to pursue bigger properties, like the Champions League in 2015 and the Premier League in 2016? Or is this just a warning shot to the networks — a reminder that Google has almost $50 billion in cash reserves and, if it really wanted to, could totally outbid all of them for the rights to the NBA, so hey, maybe you could work with us instead of trying to compete against us?

That briefcase sure has a lot of cash in it, though, doesn’t it?

So, if you’re Don Garber, do you take the money, jump into bed with Google, and embrace that vision of the future of TV? Do you stick with the traditional cable sports networks, where all the other sports are, in the hopes that the ratings will eventually turn around? Do you try to meet in the middle somewhere, using YouTube as a complement to games on cable? What do you do? Leave your answer in the comments below.

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