Why the NHL and NBA Should Let Fans Watch Online for Free

Jeff Graham

The NBA and NHL playoffs are in full-swing, meaning significant social media activity, media coverage and online traffic for both leagues. The NHL and NBA do a great job of promoting their sports, and both are advancing into the wonderful world of online streaming, mobile phones, iBeacons, and more specialized fan experiences.

But... there's a problem. Actually, it's more like an opportunity: I think both leagues are missing the boat online, and that they should stream all of their games, for free.

Why you ask? Because it would be a lights out fan experience, and would position them well for the future.

In the meantime, fans have to put up with the dreaded Paywall. 

Can We Ditch the Paywall Please?

The NHL has a subscription program called GameCenter, whereby you pay $100 (or so) annually to get access to most of their games. The NBA has an offering called NBA League Pass, which is similar.

GameCenter and League Pass work on a "Paywall" model. Essentially, you've got to pay to be let into a gated area online to watch the games. This means only hardcore fans, who are willing to fork over the money, will get access to the games.

For the somewhat casual fan, this is a non-starter. And to me, that's a huge shame.

The NBA and NHL Should Let Fans Watch Online For Free

Think about how much traffic NBA.com and NHL.com would generate if fans were allowed to watch any game, any time, anywhere online during the playoffs? It may be a pipe dream, but I think it could be a huge windfall for both leagues. Here's why:

  1. The leagues would gain more fans because their content would be more accessible and shareable through social media.
  2. Online viewers could be extensively monetized through direct selling, as opposed to a paywall. For example, instead of charging a fan to watch a game for $100, you could sell him or her $2000 in merchandise.
  3. Games could become highly integrated with social media, creating an incredibly rich experience for fans, and building tremendous brand loyalty (which, in turn, would lead to more direct sales).
  4. Free online sport watching could leverage the dominance of smartphones - allowing fans to catch games easily, for free, from their devices.
  5. If a major pro-sport, like the NBA, offered their content for free, they could position themselves as a league that's more accessible than their competitors. The moral equivalent of Open Source Code.
  6. Moving to this type of model would allow leagues to move away from an increasingly out-dated business model (advertising) to a more cutting edge model (engagement and direct selling online).

Of Course, None of This Can Happen... Yet

Unfortunately, the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB all have long term national television contracts. Online access for fans is tied up in these deals, so what I'm talking about above has no chance of happening for a number of years (most of these deals go to around 2020).

That said, what will the world look like in 2020? What will the state of television be then? How ubiquitous will smartphones be? How deeply will social media be integrated into our lives? How cheap will it be to stream data? How inexpensive will data be for viewers? Will there be other experiential technology, like Oculus Rift, that allows for an even better online experience? It could be that watching sports online, for free, might be a great option.

At least, a fan can dream.