Tête-à-Tête: Jumping through hoops to watch the Raptors

Toronto Raptors Open Gym

Welcome to Tête-à-Tête, a series where two of our writers converse on interesting topics in the mobile landscape — through chat. Think of it as a podcast for readers.

This week, Daniel and Douglas discuss whether the purported simplicity of single sign-in authentication ends up being more confusing than useful to end consumers — and the Raptors.

Daniel Bader: Douglas, last week I encountered a searing problem. I pulled up Google Now, as I do every once in a while, to discover that the Toronto Raptors were ahead of the L.A. Lakers by a couple of points with just under two minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

Ideally, I would have opened up my NBA Game Time app to watch, because when I think of the Raptors I first think of the sport itself, not the network on which the game is streaming. But Raptors games are blacked out, thanks to licensing deals with television networks that I don’t subscribe to.

My next course of action was to check whether Rogers AnyplaceTV was showing the game, but its mobile-only offerings don’t include in-market Raptors games. I had a Bell SIM card hanging around, too, so I checked Bell TV, which offered TSN but not Sportsnet, where the game was being broadcast.

Finally, I called my mother, whose cable subscription opened the front doors to a proverbial litany of sports and premium content. It is her cable subscription, that legacy piece of technology, that telcos so jealously hold on to as admittance to the best content in Canada.

With Bell’s CraveTV announcement, I’m wondering whether this backwards way of bundling digital access with legacy will ever change. Why is it that I need to pay $100/month for a cable subscription for my living room just to watch the Raptors game in my bedroom? It all seems so backward and misaligned to me.

Douglas Soltys: There are lot of issues here, so let’s get started. The first is that you should have never even tried to watch that Raptors game, because they played terribly and were destined to lose to some Black Mamba BS.

The second issue is the Grand Canyon-like gap between your digital sports struggles and the reality of the traditional, expensive cable package. The answer to your question is that if you didn’t have to buy a cable subscription to watch the Raptors (or the Leafs, or TFC, or YOUR WORLD CHAMPION TORONTO ROCK), you wouldn’t. With HBO finally making the digital break, live TV – also known as sports – is the only carrot cable providers have left to dangle. And they are going to squeeze that carrot tightly until it breaks like this analogy.

CraveTV won’t change matters at all, because it’s designed to stream on-demand digital content that customers are cutting their cable cords over, not the appointment viewing that is now the backbone of traditional ‘television’. But that’s really not where your problem lies, anyways. The major cable players, who are also the major telecoms, who also own the sports teams, who also produce/purchase the content, all in some way offer the ability to watch a Raptors game on your laptop/tablet/mobile. The problem is that despite Bell’s TV Anywhere strategy, there’s still no consistency as to where and how you can watch sports digitally, because of the players involved.

So if it’s not the tech, and it’s not the business model, maybe it’s the conflict of interest?

Daniel: Yeah, I guess that’s the problem, and it’s not just to do with money-printing sports content. Bell and Rogers have multiple places to watch the same content depending on what kind of subscriber you are. Want to watch Comedy Central or Bravo content? Download the respective GO apps and consume away, avec commercials but without authentication. Want to watch on-demand or live CTV content through the CTV GO app? You’ll need to authenticate against your Bell, TELUS or Shaw account; Rogers subscribers need not apply.

The problem is similar to the fragmented accessibility — or inaccessibility — of the mobile payment space, which requires the right smartphone, carrier and bank, and not always the same combination of the three, to function.

I’m fine paying for premium content, even if I have to pay a premium to consume it, but having to wade through various distribution channels, some controlled by the content owners, some by the networks and some by the carriers (which, in the case of the Raptors, comprises the same two companies, Rogers and Bell), all seemingly fighting for the right to lock you out of their own content. And there doesn’t seem to be a magic pill on the horizon to make the opaque wall transparent. The reason Netflix is so popular is because it requires a single login for access on any screen, anywhere. It’s the same content anywhere in the country. That content may not be to everyones’ tastes, but at least the barriers to entry are non-existent.

Douglas: Your Netflix point is a good one, and relates back to one you made earlier about having a dedicated app for a sport or sports team. Most sports fans, while a fan of the sport (and league) in general, are very much the fans of one team. I would loooooove to have a Raptors icon on my iPad that I can press to get all varieties of their content, including live streaming of their games. I have no idea as to whether or not licensing the content of one team is less or more difficult than for league rights, but I think the owners of said team would be happy to provide this content to as many potential customers as possible. Many U.S. sports teams have created their own broadcast networks explicitly for this purpose, and I would love to pay the Raptors directly for my “We The North” fix.

Again, in the case of the Raptors, however, the team is owned by Bell and Rogers. When I asked Nicolas Poitras, VP of Communications Marketing at Bell, about the feasibility of such an app, he told me the decision was really up to MLSE. Daniel, do you think it’s feasible? Do you think it would be a unified solution to the fragmentation problem?

Daniel: Unfortunately not. It’s a matter of bundling, as we’ve seen before with the lack of a la carte television subscriptions. MLSE would make no money selling you just the Raptors games because it is far more profitable to tie those games to channels at higher advertising rates than digital-only content currently offers. Sports fans know all about the ignominious reality of blackouts, and premium networks like HBO are untethering at a glacial pace.

So no, I don’t think the world of unbundling and a la carte streaming is going to improve overnight, but in the meantime, how ’bout making me jump through less hoops to get my Raptors fix — that’s their job, not mine.