SBJ/February 21-27, 2010/Media

Canucks, Leafs lead on in-market mobile streaming

Canucks
Leafs
Applications allow Toronto, Vancouver fans to watch in-market games on mobile devices.
While the NHL’s push to stream live in-market games to mobile devices has stalled in the United States, two Canadian teams have begun offering in-market mobile streaming of live games.

The Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs have partnered with technology firm NeuLion to create a smartphone application that allows fans in both cities to watch live in-market games on their handheld devices.

NHL clubs negotiate the use of in-market digital rights with their respective regional sports networks, and most U.S.-based teams have given those rights to their RSNs. The Canucks and Maple Leafs, on the other hand, both of whom have local broadcasting deals with Rogers Sportsnet, kept their respective rights for digital and mobile streaming.

“They kept the digital rights rather than sell them in the negotiations with the RSN,” said John Collins, COO of the NHL. “They have been two of the more aggressive clubs in innovation and driving technology to improve the fan experience.”

Rogers Sportsnet declined to comment for this story.

The Canucks launched the mobile application, called Canucks Live, on Dec. 17 and promoted the service — which costs $9.99 for the remainder of the regular season — across the team’s free Canucks Mobile application. According to team COO Victor de Bonis, the club has sold approximately 10,000 subscriptions.

“We had a vision of what we wanted to do in the market with [digital rights] when we negotiated with [Rogers Sportsnet],” de Bonis said. He added that the application will return next season and that the team’s goal is to convince 10 percent of the approximately 200,000 subscribers to the team’s free application, which offers live stats and video highlights, to purchase the mobile streaming plan.

The Maple Leafs launched the $19.99 Leafs TV Interactive Mobile during the first week of January, and promoted the service on the team’s website and social media pages. The application is available only to iPhone and iPad users. Chris Hebb, Maple Leafs senior vice president of broadcast and content, declined to say how many sales the team had made, saying the application is in beta testing and the club will re-evaluate its price point, functionality and overall performance at the end of the season.

“We want to learn whether we are just creating frustration in the marketplace or if we are really benefiting our customer,” Hebb said. “We want to see what the response is before we really market the product.”

Both applications are based off of the NHL’s GameCenter Live mobile player, which was designed by NeuLion. In addition to the live game broadcast, which is produced by Rogers in Vancouver and the Maple Leafs’ own production company in Toronto, the application includes condensed games, highlights and a stats package. Both applications feature advertising from the regular telecast. According to Chris Wagner, executive vice president of strategy at NeuLion, the applications rely on a phone’s GPS positioning to prohibit the application from functioning out of market.

The move comes several months after the league said it was close to an agreement with Fox Sports Net and Comcast SportsNet that would allow many of its 24 U.S.-based teams to stream live in-market games. U.S.-based RSNs frequently demand that digital rights be included in their contracts, but they rarely stream games on the Internet or to mobile devices. A source close to the story said the league’s negotiations with FSN, which holds the rights to 13 teams, and Comcast SportsNet, which holds the rights to four, are still ongoing.

Currently, the New York Yankees and San Diego Padres allow fans to stream live games through a paid subscription service, as do the Portland Trail Blazers. In 2010, Comcast SportsNet streamed live Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers games, but the network did not bring either service back due to disappointing demand and economic issues.

“We remain open to streaming, but new [streaming] agreements need to make economic sense to us and provide good content for our viewers,” said a Comcast spokesperson.

FSN officials declined comment.

Not all Canadian teams have binding digital agreements with RSNs, however. The Ottawa Senators negotiated digital rights but retained the team’s mobile rights and, according to team sources, will work with Rogers Sportsnet to roll out a broadband streaming service for the 2011-12 season. The team is still researching a plan for mobile streaming.

The Edmonton Oilers said Rogers Sportsnet will determine whether the team streams live content. The Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames did not return calls for comment.

“Our focus has been on creating a seamless environment for the fan to view as much NHL content as they can,” the NHL’s Collins said, “while still respecting the flow of rights.”

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