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Lessons Learned From the Olympics: How and Why the WNBA Should Webcast More Games

During my e-conversation about Darnellia Russell with Lakehead University’s sports information director Mike Aylward, we ended up having an extended discussion about the use of new media technologies to broadcast sporting events.

I was particularly interested in the use of the web for broadcasting WNBA games and Aylward was a great resource for that. Since no television networks will come to the small city of Thunder Bay, Ontario to broadcast games, Aylward set up a system for video and audio casting Lakehead games via the web. Although his effort to independently broadcast Lakehead University’s games is of a much smaller scale than that of the WNBA, I found his insight useful in framing the range of possibilities for web broadcasting.

I return to the subject now after reading an article about NBC’s web casting of the Olympics by Saul Hansell of the New York Times "Bits" blog. In that article, and a previous one from August 13, Hansell challenges the dominant perception that webcasting reduces television ratings and thus hurts advertising revenue by consulting executives from Major League Baseball and CBS, which webcast the men's NCAA tournament this year.
"We’ve learned that wherever you are, you watch on the biggest screen you can," (Robert A. Bowman of Major League Baseball Advanced Media) said.

To be sure, CBS came to this conclusion slowly. In past years, the network Webcast the early games of the NCAA basketball tournament, but you had to tune into television to see the semifinals and final game.

This year’s Web simulcast of the final games "only added to revenues and therefore profit," he said. A "low single digit" percentage of the total audience for those games was online, and consisted most likely of people who were not able to get to a television.

(Jason Kint of CBSsports.com) suggested that NBC would have done well to follow the same model, at least for the live events, with the Olympics.

"The way we program March Madness on Demand, making it available on any platform live, is the ideal way to handle it" he said.
To summarize, web casting is not only a means to make sports events more accessible, but it may also increase profit as people generate a buzz about the games they watch.

Furthermore, webcasting a live event that is not televised could also provide accessibility without threatening advertisers, affiliate stations, or cable systems – it only "fuels interest" by allowing people to discuss the "dramas of the day" more easily. From the August 13th article:
"We know without question people want to see the best viewing experience," (Alan Wurtzel of NBC) said. "If you watched the Olympics in high definition on a big screen, you are not going to watch it online. So that is why there isn’t going to be a cannibalization."
What this seems to mean for the WNBA is that they are currently under-utilizing the web for broadcast purposes, despite touting an impressive 90+ live webcasts for free this season. The problem seems similar to the dilemma NBC is struggling with regarding the Olympics – the WNBA only makes games available for webcast when they are also televised by a local network (not national networks, like ABC/ESPN).

It’s unclear whether the WNBA limits webcasting because it has given exclusive broadcasting rights to local/national networks. But if we believe Hansell’s article, it’s to the WNBA’s benefit to find a way to independently webcast games that are not televised. And that’s where Aylward’s insight is helpful.

Webcasting is not very difficult or costly

The first insight gained from Aylward -- and something that could probably be discerned just by watching events on the web -- is that webcasting is not that difficult to do. Webcasting does not require a television broadcast to work, although the WNBA’s current broadcast strategy may lead you to believe that.

Really, all you need to webcast a sporting event is a computer connected to the Internet and a camera, preferably equipped with a FireWire port. A very simple example of a webcasting system is available at Ustream.TV. Obviously, the quality of the webcast would depend on the quality of the camera and the Internet connection. I’m sure that a league like the WNBA could find a way to do this simply and cheaply.

In fact, Aylward suggested that WNBA teams could probably pull something like this off independently using a simple two camera system. It is my understanding that WNBA teams already hire interns to work for them and others looking for summer broadcasting experience would probably work for free. So why not put them to work doing something substantive?

A team would probably need to find 5 or 6 interns to set up and operate the cameras. They could assign 2-3 per camera, with one operating the computer, one operating the camera, and possibly a third who can serve as a runner to help troubleshoot any problems that occur during games. An extra 1 or 2 interns (or perhaps one of those monitoring the computer) could be responsible for doing the commentary.

For interns interested in broadcast journalism, it’s great experience. For fans, it’s increased accessibility to the game.

It’s definitely possible that these simplified broadcasts would not have the same television-level production with graphic overlays and such. But the key thing is that it makes more games available to fans thus making it easier for fans to build a connection with the league. The league doesn’t lose anything by broadcasting additional games.

Given the problems the league had simulcasting games earlier in the season, it’s likely that it would take some time to work out the bugs in this system. But there’s no reason not to try, especially for teams that don’t have good local broadcasting agreements.

To charge or not to charge

The next major concern is whether to charge in order to cover the expenses for these games. Part of that depends on the system they use to broadcast the games.

For a league as big as the WNBA, it would probably make sense to just use league servers and broadcast games through the league’s website, similar to what they do now. But Major League Soccer – a similar league in size and age – uses the organization that runs Major League Baseball’s web services to webcast their games. And there are many other services that provide sports leagues with webcasting services.

Aylward sent me a variety of sites that do everything from small events to small leagues to professional teams. A brief overview: Aylward uses News-Cast.com for Lakehead University and reports that while they are small, they provide good customer service.

B2TV provides season passes for a number of hockey leagues and collegiate programs, including USA Hockey and the US Hockey League. The one disadvantage that I notice about that service is that it appears to have technical limitations that the others don’t.

INSINC works with bigger leagues, including the Canadian Football League and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment which owns the Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, and the MLS’s Toronto FC. What I notice off the bat is that this service seems to have a more professional presentation than some of the others.

With more webcasting, why not add more interactivity?

Another feature of webcasting mentioned by INSINC that I haven’t seen elsewhere is the use of "enhanced interactive services" that allow fans to connect with one another as they watch games. The vision was described in a case study of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Leafs TV was able to demonstrate a market for enhanced interactive services, that included four additional camera angles, chat server and in game voting contests ($3.95/game) adding new revenue streams in the process.
This is a perfect example of how webcasting could in fact enhance rather than detract from the experience of watching games, especially for games that are not otherwise televised.

Enhancing the fan experience

I write this post partially out of frustration that I’m assuming other WNBA fans share – some of the most exciting moments thus far this season have gone completely un-broadcast because of the league’s current broadcast strategy. My goal here was only to find out if there are options…and from what I can tell not only are there options, but they’re feasible and smaller leagues are making it work.

Jason Kint of CBSsports.com, which webcast the entire NCAA mens basketball tournament this year (did they do women’s as well?), makes a point in reference to the Olympics tape delaying games, which I hope the WNBA has already paid attention to.
"What makes sports so special is the live moment and not knowing what would happen."
The joy of watching sports is not just knowing the outcome, but watching people compete to determine the outcome as it unfolds.

I would have loved to be able to see Candace Parker’s first dunk live. Or her 40 point, 16 rebound, and 6 assist performance against the Comets on July 9th. Or the Dream’s overtime thriller against the Sun on June 27th that they almost won in regulation…or so it seemed from the radio feed.

The bottom line for the WNBA is that the fan experience would be much better if they broadcast more games and we live in an age in which that can be done cheaply and efficiently for all parties involved.

I certainly commend the league for providing us with 90+ free games, but it seems like an attainable goal to webcast every game independent of television contracts. If the problem is the cost of providing more than 90, then webcast 90 for free and then charge for the rest.

But it seems like the next step in the league’s growth is to make sure that the average fan can see all the games.

Related Links:

WNBA 2.0: Can Web 2.0 Tools Help the WNBA Build Its Fanbase?
http://rethinkbball.blogspot.com/2008/06/wnba-20-can-wnba-build-fan-base-with.html