Incomplete Pass: Will Watching Sports Online Remain A Game Of Frustration?

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In the past three months since my newest record came out, I've played 40 shows in 20 states and three countries. This isnʼt unusual; I've been touring like this for 15 years. Itʼs no wonder I donʼt own a TV or have cable. Iʼm never home long enough to use them.

Singer-songwriter Erin McKeown.

Still, on the road, I work hard to keep up with my favorite sports teams. I watch on hi-def hotel room TVs, in airport sports bars, and on friendsʼ grungy couches. But I also have watched via sites like FirstRow or ATdeeNet, and like a lot of folks, I password share. During the 2011 NFL season, I watched games via the DirectTV Sunday Ticket app whenever the passwordʼs owner was on tour outside the country. Once I even tweeted that I was having trouble catching a certain game live, and a fan sent me their Slingbox login.

This patchwork method works well most of the time, and despite the effort it regularly requires, I'm still driven do it. Any way I can, no matter where I am, I will do anything to consume live sports. It strikes me that this is not unlike how lots of people feel about music. Iʼve committed the more recent part of my music career to helping fans easily access their favorite music and making sure that the artists who make it are compensated fairly. Whether itʼs advocating for net neutrality and for better streaming rates or setting up a direct-to-fan service on my own Web site, itʼs a personal mission, born of my own fandom, to make it as easy as possible to get music.

I donʼt think of this as combatting "piracy." I do not frame the enthusiasm and desire to consume content as a moral issue. We who are excited about the latest book, TV show, movie or album -- or for that matter a sports game -- are not "stealing" when we get it via the only timely and affordable means available. I believe when you give people legitimate options, they use them. From iTunes, Rdio, Pandora, and Spotify to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, celebrities like Louis CK and countless independent artists like Amanda Palmer are finding ways to make this new economy work. Itʼs not a perfect system yet, but itʼs a very good beginning.

That said, the business of watching live sports online is stuck where the music industry was ten years ago: Some successes, but also, many failures of inconvenient technology and expensive business models.

NCAA March Madness Live

The NCAAʼs March Madness app is a recent success. If you were willing to sit through the same fifteen second commercial 20 times (I was), you could see any menʼs or womenʼs college basketball game during the NCAA tournament in real-time with broadcast announcers. Maybe the NCAA can do this because they arenʼt paying their athletes, but thatʼs a subject for another column.

MLB At Bat

Major League Baseball's At Bat app is almost perfect, and by far the best offering from the four major pro sports. I happily pay the $19.99 per season to listen to not only my beloved Red Sox and Orioles games, but also noteworthy match-ups, perfect games in progress, and when records are on the line. At Bat also offers the option to purchase on a yearly or month-by-month basis. However, you can only purchase out-of-market games, so I am still stuck trying to find ways to watch the Red Sox live in the Boston area. Maybe Iʼll have to move.

DirectTV Sunday Ticket

The NFL is by far the most egregious offender in offering unaffordable ways to watch football games. DirectTVʼs Sunday Ticket app allows subscribers to watch each Sundayʼs slate of games plus the RedZone Channel from any mobile device. However, for someone like me, I would have to first buy DirectTVʼs cable package (which I donʼt need) at a conservative $29 a month locked in for 2 years then add the online feature for an additional $299.95 each season. That works out to a whopping $636 a year to watch 17 Sundays of football. Can I get a boxed set of encyclopedias or a free grill with that?

With iTunes, Apple revolutionized the music business in 2003 by providing an easy, a-la-cart way for fans to purchase digital music. It is the place that I make highest percentage of my income -- not on the road, not royalties or television placements, but from individual people buying individual songs, whenever the mood strikes. Why canʼt we do the same for live sports?

With the recent launch of Aereo, the promise of affordably watching live sports online takes one more step closer to reality, though it is no surprise that its technology is being challenged in court. Regardless of the outcome, I can only hope that the success of a service like Aereo and the thriving communities of FirstRow and its ilk alerts sports franchises and broadcasters to the simple fact: We sports fans are dying to hand you our money in order to watch the games we love, wherever we are. Just give us the opportunity.

Erin McKeown is a musician, writer, and producer. Her latest album is MANIFESTRA, out now on TVP Records. Follow her sports podcast “ * ” (@AsteriskPodcast) when it debuts in the summer of 2013.