Why Americans Can't Watch Cycling "On TV"

Mar 22 2013

Script

(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

A couple of weeks ago, Neal Rogers remarked he found it frustrating that despite the advanced technological achievements of these here United States, he still can’t watch bike racing “on TV”.

As you might guess by the tonality that offset it, I have a quarrel to pick generally with that last phrase. After all, a TV is just about $10 of RadioShack cables away from being oversized, power-hungry low resolution computer monitor—which, if the twitters and instagrams of last weekend are any indication, more and more of you are beginning to realize—and that’s a very good thing!

What is of far more concern to me are the connotations that come with TV as a medium—but I’ll get to that later. First, let’s just pretend you’ve all accepted that it doesn’t matter which screen displays your flickering images, and you’re a developing fan who wants check out today E3 Harelbeke, to see what this whole “Spring Classics” thing is about.

I suppose the first place that deserves mention is Cycling.tv, because back in 2005, I watched George Hincapie win KBK on my laptop from my bed, and it was pretty cool. To say it’s been downhill from there is an understatement, but limiting myself to the specific constraints of the scenario introduced above, you can’t watch on Cycling.TV because they don’t carry the race.

But that’s cool, y’know because I have this email in my inbox from Universal Sports, and it says “Watch Tom Boonen, Phillippe Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara & All Your Favorite Cyclists This Week”—they sent it with a picture of Brad Wiggins, but whatever—and right there, on the schedule, Gran Prix E3 Herlbeke—that’s not the name, but close enough. Gonna go to their website and check it out—and…not available for purchase?

So…just to be clear on this, you’ve secured exclusive US broadcast rights but you’re not selling the race? Forgive my lack of business school experience but isn’t the whole idea of producing a product to sell it to someone and make a profit? It’s like, I’m walking into Mellow Johnny’s bike shop, Exclusive US Dealer of Rapha, and—oh, sorry, those $800 bib shorts you want to buy? Sorry—they’re not for sale”. Are you guys on acid on something? Who told you this was a good idea—have I been struggling under the mistaken assumption that you weren’t out to deliberately piss off the fan base who, under ideal circumstances, would be giving you money

But hey—Universal Sports themselves told me on Twitter that they were outbid for US rights to RCS’s events—so that means the Giro, Lombardia, Sanremo,  it they went to…BeIN Sport? That’s a new one one me, but we can get to their website easy enough. We got news, video, TV Guide, several different soccer leagues—ok, “other sports”, I’ll just mouse over that—”volleyball, rugby, golf” nope—no cycling. Well, I’ll just go up here the search bar and a look for “cycling”; one result; “Armstrong Speaks—disgraced cyclist has agreed to appear on American talk show…well jesus, this is from five months ago. Ok, I’ll just track down BeIN’s iphone App in Google—yep, there’s the link, open in iTunes and —and there’s an alert window  “The item you've requested is not currently available in the U.S. store.”

And so, literally bereft of other options, I’m now stuck with one of a dozen or so illegal* streaming sites—procyclinglive.com, steephill.tv, fromsport.com, etc.—and in fact, if you were to Google “live cycling broadcasts” “streaming bike races” etc these pages — and not the actual legitimate rightsholders, will almost certainly dominant your results. So if you work in SEO or online marketing for one of the legitimate cycling broadcasters, please, consider yourself fired.

While journalists can’t get enough of cataloguing the sordid demise of their own profession, the successful method for selling content online is pretty much a closed case. Create an easy, immediate point of sale, charge a relatively painless price for small bits of your content, and then watch the money roll in. This isn’t a new idea—iTunes and the App store are pretty irrefutable examples; and if you’re a diligent Googler can find me applying the concept to cycling in a Podium Cafe comment from three years ago.

The fact that such an option continues to not exist at any of the legitimate outlets for watching cycling induces the sort of apoplexy that I generally reserve for Pat McQuaid quotes and Lance Armstrong denials. Cycling TV has no excuse—their attempt to sell quarterly and yearly packages with a schedule full of more holes than a LADA jersey is at best ingenuous and at worst an actionable example of bait and switch—especially when the overwhelming majority of their coverage consists of two-minute recaps.

But—and this is where I get back to the problem of  TV as a medium—BeIN and Universal Sports both want to insist that they are TV channels. And the problem with that is that TV is really, [expletive] expensive. In my occasional interactions with actual staff Universal/VS/ON, I’ve been quoted absurd numbers for producing a televised broadcast. $30,000 in transmission fees alone, paychecks for cameramen, studio time—and here’s the kicker—a fat four-million-dollar flat fee for TV and internet rights for the ASO’s 6 major events.

It will not surprise you, then, that these cycling operations almost invariably operate at a loss. TVs expense means it is inherently aimed a massive, captive audiences bringing tens of millions of eyeballs—which makes cycling, whose US audience for the Tour de France is barely in the hundreds of thousands, an extremely unappealing target for advertisers. Simply put, TV as it currently exist cannot meet the needs of its audience, and couldn’t turn a profit at all except for the way that cable television is sold in the united states.

If you read the FAQ at Universal Sports, you’ll see that you can, in fact, watch their races online—you just need to have a cable or satellite package that already carries their TV channel. This is because they can make way more money milking cab
le companies
for network fees than they can selling your eyeballs, and these providers can in turn milk their customers on the high-priced cable or satellite packages they’d need to get nosebleed channels like Universal or BeIN in the first place

In short, the system works for everyone but the fans. Race organizers can charge broadcast license fees that the viewership doesn’t warrant, small channels can leverage this exclusive access to remain profitable even while overspending and under-delivering on niche content, and cable companies can continue to pay the outlandish network—so long as chumps like us, and other consumers of said hard-to-find content remain obsessed with seeing it “on TV”

But there is, dear listener, one hope—however faint. His name is Michele Aquarone, and in a few short years as the chief of RCS sports, he’s gained a reputation for creativity and progressiveness nearly unheard of in the archaic and byzantine apparatus that drives this sport. After a particularly brutal Tirreno-Adriatico stage, where fully a third of the field dropped out, he volunteered that as a race organizer he had gone too far—showing compassion for the riders that in previous generations, would have be written off as part of the business.

If there were some way to convey to him the sheer misery of feed-hopping at 8am on a Sunday, frantically closing popups, squinting at jumpy, over-compressed images, and struggling to pick out rider names in languages you don’t understand, he might just realize that it’s unreasonable to expect any sort of fanbase to develop when they consistently have to Taylor Phinney their way through such adversity. he might—maybe—look into a buyer with an actual interest in delivering Americans a proper viewing experience for his races.

It just so happens that Michele Acquarone is on twitter—@micacquarone-that’s m-i-c-a-c-q-u-a-r-o-n-e. Next time you can’t seem to find an enjoyable, legitimate source for one of his races, maybe you should drop him a line.

*(In strict terms, these sites themselves are not “illegal”; they provide links to the Russian (if the Cyrillic dialog boxes that occasionally pop-up in the feeds are any indication) hackers who re-broadcast European bike races. I also hasten to add that I don’t use the termn “illegal” as any sort of condemnation—without these sites, watching bike racing in the US would be even more difficult than it already is.)

19 Responses to “Why Americans Can't Watch Cycling "On TV"”

  1. Tina Micheal Ruse March 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    It would be wonderful to access the races live when I can(like today I was off for E3),but the problem with the internet is I have a job and can’t sit at the monitor on their time.I have to have a way to record and play on my schedule.I’m willing to pay if someone will let me and give me what I want.
    Beinsport not available on my Comcast though it says it is.
    There is a market that is not being served for sure.

  2. Herbie March 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

    Well, I suppose its the old ‘you can take the American out of America, but you can’t take America out of the American’! Just bring up CyclingFans.com and watch most things!

  3. huphtur March 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    Thanks, but I’ll stick to my shitty pirated Sporza stream!

  4. Neal Rogers March 22, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    Nice analysis piece of a shitty situation, really well done, but I would have enjoyed it more if you hadn’t opened with a quote from Neal Rogers. I hear he’s a real asshole.

  5. Cgb March 22, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    So many words!

  6. Luke March 22, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

    RCS has provided a nice free official feed (but in Italian) for at least the Giro, and what about that UCI Youtube channel? Were they going to start providing more live video there, or was that just for cyclocross?

    Any thoughts on the “Tour Tracker” sites that have been used in some smaller American races lately like Tour of California and Colorado Pro Challenge thingy? I have no idea how economically favorable/unfavorable that coverage was to produce, but it was very nice to have an official feed with extra data that I could watch for free right from my computer or from an app on my phone.

    But yeah, I agree there’s lots of room for improvement…

  7. Velosopher March 23, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    What a pitch-perfect description of my Sunday mornings from March through July… Sigh!

  8. jon March 23, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    It would be great if eurosport began offering a subscription plan via the web that isn’t geo-restricted. They are already paying for broadcasting rights and I believe if they legitimately checked into it, they’d find a willing revenue base. Their coverage and commentary is typically stellar and with the euro feel to it, and former pro commentators like Sean Kelly and Magnus Backstedt, maybe stateside interest will increase…. but, that is a huge maybe.

  9. cosmic osmo March 23, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    yo check it out! neal rogers over here trying to learn how to be a journalist.

  10. cosmo March 23, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    @cosmic osmo: That’s not really a fair statement. As Bicycling’s Andrew Bernstein pointed out on this very site a few years back, what I do isn’t journalism.

    Journalism would (using this story as an example) involve tracking down the various parties (Universal Sports, BeIn, RCS, etc) and getting statements, then contacting some subject matter experts—maybe people who used to work in the cable industry, or another journalist who covered the battle between ESPN and cable companies a few years ago—to evaluate those statements and add additional commentary. Then, more or less regardless of your own opinion on the people / things involved, you have to present all this information you’ve gathered in a fair, impartial fashion.

    Journalism also involves finding and cultivating sources of information so they give you the breaking stories and inside information that keeps the rest of us chattering.

    I just sit at my desk and slice up video / yell at a microphone for a little bit.

    Obviously, you’re entitled to your own opinion on the quality of the work Velonews produces, but the information it puts out sure does support a pretty huge ecosystem of blogs—including this one.

  11. cosmic osmo March 24, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    well to play devils advocate I would disagree with Bernsteins sentiment. in that specific example of LBL theres nothing that a commentator sitting in a box in Liege knows that you as a spectator dont. they get the same feed we do, just more angles. now if Bernstein was sitting on a moto three feet from Vino, then maybe hes got something we dont but as far as i know thats not the case. Dont let guys like that weigh you down with professional elitism, they dont have any inherent skills we dont and quite frankly the job is a pretty easy one to do. just look at the degree nepotism plays in sports journalism on the whole and who the staff at say a velonews are. these arent guys with cracking literary skills reporting on the front lines….

    now this post here… isnt journalism youre totally right, its a rant. HTRWW is journalism though, even if you dont think it is haha. velonation has some of the worst post race analysis of any news outlet, hence my comment about Neal coming here to learn how to do his job.

    and really how many people actually use velonews as their main source for news? after sifting through the daily adverts they post about the latest and greatest carbon turd you dont need you might find a paragraph or two about the days race. always late to the party and almost always copy-pasta, velonews produces race reports that would get any third-year high-schooler a “D”

  12. Jay Batson March 25, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    I spent some time working for NBC Sports; Versus (now renamed, as we all know) is it’s sister / subsidiary (related via Comcast). Note that NBC/Universal is a separate organization (entirely different ownership & management).

    Though I can’t recite the issues specifically (because I can’t disclose, and basically, I can’t fully understand them they’re so bizarre), there are two fundamental issues:
    - The contracts between the broadcast networks & the distribution networks (cable/fiber) – and the business models each use – are complex, and rooted in the antiquities of how cable systems came to be – not in how it’s all structured today. So much so that it’s nearly impossible to change them at this stage. Costs of sports capture, production, licenses and talent intertwine with local / town quasi-monopoly deals given a distribution system operator in exchange for the massive capital outlay to get fiber to your house, resulting limits who gets to have access to telephone poles, and etc.
    - The local fiber / cable operators can’t afford to be dumb pipes. The prices & margins aren’t high enough. Despite you paying $xx/month for nTB of bits coming into your house, the cable / telco operators are bloated administratively, and their profit margins are thus slim on bare-bits. And competitors are hard-pressed to come in because only cable / telco companies have access to the capital required to build it all out. So “pure internet-based” broadcast is something to be feared.

    In the end, this just adds a layer of complexity that even Michele Aquarone is going to have a hard time surmounting.

    It sucks.

  13. Netserk March 26, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    @Luke

    That was closed this year… It was on the Gazzetta site.
    :(

  14. Souleur March 29, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    cosmo: brilliantly done, and on par with your excellent journalism prose. thanks.

    buddy and I were pissing and moaning about this same thing this week. In fact, being a. American b. semi-smart c. resourceful…we did what friends do, I bought the cable pack for one station (universal) he has the pack for the other (versus or whoever now). One reason too, is if you start to buy it all…you get soaked for a huge monthly charge…and so on, so we share the $7/mo bill…and what the hell, we didn’t have any Milan San Remo..and now this weekend, no freakin Flanders!

    Ok, so I am a long time cyclist, observer and this is a perpetually perennial issue. But you have to work at pissing people off, who really want to give you money. This parallels the following truths of life that are self evident

    a. corporations are full of greed, and it is insatiable
    b. corporations are full of morons, and they don’t generally know shit from apple butter, thus NEVER give them a benefit of doubt
    c. corporations cover their ass better than politicians in high rankings, therefore NEVER believe what they may sincerely say
    d. corporations own TV networks in the US
    thus…you summed it up well cosmo

    We the people must become resourceful, and watch the steephills, cyclingtv et al without feeling a bit bad about it.

    until someone does something really novel, like use resources, think…a little, maybe even outside of that box, and provide a real tv station to cyclists here, the internet will be our best friend.

  15. onwee March 30, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    BeIN Sport has won BPL soccer from Fox Soccer too, but somehow can’t manage to get its Comcast schedule onto the TIVO guide so their stuff can be taped. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and so far for European sports feeds to the US there is a lack of will. The European sports providers need to understand the US cable situation and see they are losing a potential fan base from its ineptitude. License Eurosport to the US and have Americans pay subscription fees per month, week, year, etc. If US cable networks want to outbid Eurosport for US rights, make them show their capacity to distribute widely and reliably before granting them the contract. We, the US fans, are the two birds in the bush that Euro sport providers need to seek.

  16. Brian Kall April 4, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    Videosdecyclisme.fr has a NO SPOILERS section that I bookmarked. This page has links to most races with no spoiler of who won. Sometimes you only get a few minute recap, but sometimes you get the whole 2 hour broadcast. It’s a great way to watch a race “as live” at your convenience.
    The Adobe website used at the Tour of California that included the course route, live ticker, time gaps, and all the basic race details should be standard at this point for all races. And yet…

  17. Wil April 8, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    I spent half an hour on hold waiting to talk with someone from Netflix (while watching a grainy 6-day feed) so that I could ask them to try to get live cycling feeds. I told them not to even worry about the commentary, but I’d be happy getting a SD or (gasp) HD feed that was consistent. I could sit on Twitter for the commentary (and provide some myself) and not have to listen to endless recitations of how drafting and teams work in cycling.

  18. sitbone March 4, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    How was Universal Sports able to show the Vuelta and the Giro along with a few other races on free antenna TV ? They did this for two years here in Los Angeles. I’m assuming production costs or replay costs were the same just a couple of years ago. Of course, it may have been a tease to get us hooked. Then when they went to cable they hoped they’d drag all the suckers with them. If I want cycling on Universal Sports, I have to buy cable, then I have to purchase a special sports package, then I have to purchase Universal Sports, then I have to pay Universal Sports a fee per race. Sorry, not interested. I’ll jump on my bike and go for a ride.

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