For the first edition of Elephant Sport’s Across The Pondcast, Stephen Kilbey and Chris Monti discuss the state of the NBA games being played in the UK each year, and what the league needs to do to improve upon its investment overseas.
Since 2007 the NBA has been bringing teams to the O2 Arena to play both pre-season and regular season games in front of a portion of the league’s international fanbase. But whether or not much progress has been made in the nine years is up for debate.
Download the first episode of the Across the Pondcast below to find out Elephant Sport’s verdict on the matter, after attending the latest game in the Global Games in London featuring the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic:
Anyone serious about watching American sports in Europe these days, will have become used to streaming games via subscriptions packages, which allow fans of both big and small teams to access every game live and on-demand for a yearly fee.
It’s only going getting bigger and increasingly fitting to the busy life of a modern-day sports fan.
When I first discovered the joys of American sports, I started watching the NHL (National Hockey League) back in 2004, all I could see was one game a week on Channel 4 through the night on a Wednesday. As a fan of the Carolina Hurricanes – a relatively small franchise – that meant I could only see one, maybe two games a year.
Nowadays, and only a few years after I fell in love with the sport, for roughly the price of a couple of DVDs a month during the season, I can see all the games, and every post-season game involving not only the Hurricanes, but every team live and on-demand via streaming.
Not only that, but it’s available not just on my laptop, but on almost every device I own that can connect to the internet.
One sport, multiple devices
I now watch NHL plus NFL, MLB, College Sports and the NBA in my room, on the train, in the car, on my TV via a streaming box and while I’m abroad; all for one price, using one service for each sport.
“It’s expensive, time-consuming and at times downright confusing. What’s worse, I can’t even see the full games!”
Watching the Hurricanes has never been easier; and it’s the same with all the major professional American sports and who year-on-year expand on their already versatile streaming services.
On the flipside, watching my BPL team Tottenham Hotspur seems way too difficult for a sports fan in 2015.
Unable to see every game in full, I, and most other fans who choose to watch their teams legally find ourselves having to constantly juggle between BT Sport, Sky Sports and the BBC’s Match of the Day to see our teams each week during the season.
It’s expensive, time-consuming and at times downright confusing. What’s worse, I can’t even see the full games!
It baffles me that those of us who don’t have the time or money to see live games often should have to go through so much to see our team each week.
A successful trial
“It was amazing,” said Daniel Greear, a Washington Redskins fan living in Virginia after the Bills-Jaguars game at Wembley Stadium last October.
The NFL made the game available for free via Yahoo! to a global audience, broadcasting it over the internet for the first time.
It enticed millions of fans who would normally watch the NFL on TV to try a new way of watching the sport without having to pay.
“Usually I watch games on TV, but being able to access a high-quality broadcast on my phone and tablet made the experience of watching a game that didn’t matter as much to me extremely convenient.
“Does it make me want to pay for an NFL Gamepass subscription to see the ‘Skins as well as all the other games I don’t usually watch on a Sunday? Absolutely, if I can watch them anywhere, it’ll make my lunch break at work fun during the season.”
The viewing figures were staggering. Across the world, a game between two teams that didn’t make the playoff, had 15.6 million viewers online. 33% of them, came from fans outside of the USA. (According to Yahoo! Sports’ public data)
“The current Premier League TV deal is both lucrative and restrictive”
This, for the league’s first attempt at mass-streaming was extremely encouraging and has sparked a bidding war to secure streaming rights between Apple, Verizon, Yahoo!, Microsoft and AT&T. The price for the Thursday Night Games – which are touted to be the first big prospects for free-streaming going into next season – are therefore likely to be high.
“The streaming quality is fantastic,” said Marcelo Fujimoto, a Cleveland Browns fan who watched the Bills game in São Paulo, Brazil on Twitter. “It’s just like watching a game on TV.”
Easier said than done?
In the UK, the current BPL TV deal is both lucrative and restrictive. For one, Sky and BT are paying between £7m and £10m for the rights to each live game, and unless they got a piece of the pie for a very small fee, wouldn’t be interested in someone cannibalising their viewing figures.
“Outside the UK, Premier League coverage continues to expand, leaving its home market – where it is most popular – behind”
The FA also want to encourage people to attend the games not shown during primetime. This is a totally different issue though. No 3pm games on a Saturday are televised domstically due to a fear that attendance figures will be hit. Instead, in an average week, just six BPL games are shown on TV, out of a possible 20.
The NFL created a similar system known as the ‘Blackout Rule’ during the mid-00s, meaning each team wouldn’t be broadcast in its own market if the the game didn’t sell out (the rest of the country still saw it however).
However, a couple of years ago, the NFL eliminated the rule and found that, according to Colin Cowherd’s investigation on Fox Sports Radio: “Attendance only dropped a couple of percent. It was a similar sort of fluctuation that happens each year anyway.”
Across the world, outside the UK, Premier League coverage continues to expand, leaving its home market – where it is most popular – behind.
” I long for the day I can sit down at 3pm on a Saturday and watch Harry Kane play without a ticket to the game…”
“I can watch every Premier League game, on every device, and I get all sorts of pre- and post-game coverage,” explains Jake Swann from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“It works perfectly, as it’s on in the morning before other major sports start. I’ve adopted a team off the back of it. American coverage is both flexible and entertaining.”
Some 3,000 miles away from Lambeau Field, I can see every moment of the Green Bay Packers season. Four miles from White Hart Lane, I can see one Spurs game every two weeks if I’m lucky.
It’s a shame. I long for the day I can sit down at 3pm on a Saturday and watch Harry Kane play without a ticket to the game…
Going on the road to watch your team in the NFL is a strange thing.
As with all the major sports in the USA, the distance between each team can be anything from sharing the same stadium, to travelling almost 3,000 miles across a single country and multiple states.
But the main difference is that the NFL is king in America, and travelling to see your team play away from home is more like a pilgrimage; it’s taken very seriously. And I didn’t realise that fully, until I flew from London to Charlotte to see my NFL team – the Green Bay Packers – play the Carolina Panthers away from the team’s home field.
The Panthers aren’t the most storied team in the NFL, having formed as part of the League’s expansion in 1995, but its fan base are about as passionate as the rest, despite it needing a bit of growth. Bank of America Stadium is also a really cool place to catch a game, if a little generic for a downtown stadium.
It seems to suit the team, the structure is new, and exciting, but lacks any character gained from a lengthy history.
None of that mattered though, as joining the thousands of Packers fans outside – who had also travelled an incredible distance to see the team play – made Charlotte feel like the streets surrounding Lambeau Field back in Wisconsin, proving that Pack fans really know how to make anywhere in the USA feel like a home from home.
Small market, big support
“Oh yeah, if the Packers come to town it’s always the biggest game for us,” said Adrian Green, a sales assistant at a sports retail store local to Bank of America Stadium.
“They just come in droves and it’s actually a real positive for our business round here. I mean, even the Panthers’ rivalry games don’t attract the same sort of support as the Packers, wherever they play, it seems like the entire fanbase converges on the city.”
And he really wasn’t joking, as the tailgating scene surrounding the stadium was littered with people of all ages donning ‘Green and Gold’.
“Oh, it was only a 14 hour drive down,” said one Wisconsinite in a worn-out Packers jersey, while grilling a bratwurst beside his truck. “We try and do one game a year outside of Green Bay, it’s just really fun to see new places and cheer on the team as a road warrior.”
The pre-game festivities have become an essential part of every NFL gameday now, as everyone meets up and parties in the huge parking lots or bars near the stadium.
Back in Green Bay, Lambeau Field is quite segregated from the rest of Wisconsin and its major cities Madison and Milwaukee. It’s a small town, in the middle of an agrarian part of America; so gameday is a day which eight times a year, brings everyone together in celebration of the smallest market in the league.
Tailgating in the middle of a city is so different. Charlotte is very much cosmopolitan, and densely populated, so the areas where fans party are tightly packed and spread out. It didn’t detract from the experience though, as per usual, I was constantly offered all manner of food and drinks when walking around, between the various set ups soaking it all in.
“Has the game started yet?” one fan asked me. “No,” I replied. “There’s still an hour until kick-off.”
“Brilliant,” he said. “More time for beer!”
The atmosphere in the stadium was also a friendly one. Whether it’s just a ‘Southern Hospitality’ thing or not, it was really encouraging to see both Panther and Packer fans alike cheering, chatting and sharing the game experience together.
There’s no segregation in America, which to a UK fan may seem very alien, but out in the US it’s normal. I didn’t have to be quiet when the Packers scored – partly because there were so many of our fans, and partly because Panthers fans were very accommodating.
“American sport sets itself apart from other countries when it comes to fan culture”
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever shouted louder during a game, despite being surrounded by fans wearing black and blue jerseys. The Packers started strong, but played awfully after leading at the end of the first Quarter. Until the final 15 minutes of regulation, Carolina were firmly in control, leading by three scores, but the Packers battled back and made for one of the more exciting finishes to a football game I’d ever seen.
Down just one score with two minutes to go, Green Bay’s Demerious Randall intercepted Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton to give the Packers extremely favourable field position for one last shot at victory.
The section I was in erupted, with a unique mixture of groans and jubilation. I’ll never forget jumping up and down, screaming and high fiving all the fellow fans around me. What seemed like a foregone conclusion at halftime was suddenly turned on its head; I guess that’s the sort of drama which gets so many people make the trips to opposing teams’ stadiums.
In the end it wasn’t meant to be though, as the Packers turned the ball over just a few yards from the score. My team, our team, Wisconsin’s team, had lost; and it was somehow gut-wrenching, despite all of us having accepted defeat seemingly hours before the game’s conclusion.
Those of us wearing green were left with long journeys home ahead of us, including an eight-hour flight back to London for me.
But it was worth it. Seeing the NFL for what it really is behind the TV screen, and in its native country is always an incredible experience.
American sport sets itself apart from other countries when it comes to fan culture, because it’s always such a great experience for families, as much as die-hard fans; it’s closer to Bundesliga, than it is Premier League.
“Better luck next time,” one of the Panther fans said on the way out of the stadium. “You guys are good, and we’re just riding high. See you in the playoffs hopefully? It’ll be a great game!
“Oh, and thanks for making the trip,” he added just before turning an opposite way to us onto the street outside the gates. “You guys made the atmosphere special today.”