A Comedy of Errors, an Open Letter to the NWSL

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Congratulations on a fifth season.  I’d say “historic” fifth season but at this point, every new season is historic, so what’s the point? Still, it’s a big deal, and I’m thrilled to be watching as the ten teams in the league compete to lead the table this year.

And when I say thrilled to be watching, I mean it. I’m the kind of fan who watches every game, every week. (As I’m also the kind of fan with a busy schedule, being able to catch up on them over the span of the week via Youtube was pricelessin the same way amy League Pass to the WNBA each season is worth far more than the $17 I pay for it.) So, the news that the NWSL would be partnering with Lifetime to broadcast a game a week was a big deal. Not just to me, but to everyone. And though there were concerns about the appropriateness of the channel, the availability of those games internationally, I have to say, I have been in your corner.

But it’s the other 98 matches that have a large number of fans going “What the furt” this year.

The very first problem was the way information was released, the lack of transparency and organization. Obviously pulling together a streaming platform isn’t easy. But who expected it to be? And while I wasn’t exactly on the same warpath as some regarding the lack of updates as the months until opening day turned into weeks, and then the weeks turned into days, and then hours, the fact that the Monday before opening weekend nobody had a clue how to watch four out of the weekend’s five games was a bit of a big deal.

But this season, the announcement of an official partnership with a media provider for the non-televised games, raised expectations exponentially. Everything–from the pay to the fields to the streaming–was supposed to be better this season.

The league’s work in the off-season has been almost entirely focused on growing the game, on exceeding the last year’s successes, on bringing in new fans and audiences while also retaining the steady and loyal core groups. Except, you can’t bring in anyone new and you can’t retain anyone old if they can’t watch the games. With only ten teams spread across limited geographic zones, most fans are only able to keep abreast of their teams and players via streamed (or now, televised) broadcasts. Those who can’t watch rely heavily on updates via social media, and every game day the Twitter world is awash with NWSL hashtags and commentary.  Streaming access is the backbone of NWSL fan support.

So, opening weekend over, how do you think you did?

Let me be the first among many to tell you that the Lifetime broadcast was an absolute success. Granted, that’s not to say there’s not room for improvement, but in Week 1, the channel and broadcast team did a great job. The production was high quality, the commentary was informed and entertaining, while not overwhelming what was happening on the field.

But the other four games this weekend, and their distribution to fans, were problematic. To say the very least.

For those fans trying to watch along with the non-televised game, Week 1 involved:

  • spotty streams
  • unavailable content
  • commercials mid-game (as often as every three minutes)
  • lack of archive for on-demand viewing

And these were only some of the problems mentioned and experienced by fans.

By large, the issues can be boiled down into two branches categories: quality and accessibility.

 

Quality

As far as quality goes, up until this season, it was by and large determined by each team’s infrastructure. Certain venues could always be counted on to have quality and reliable streams, others were always more troublesome, whether that meant shoddy audio, frequent lag, or just bad camerawork due to the limitations of the field. The Thorns and the Dash, playing in MLS-affiliated stadiums, had the camera resources to provide close looks at action on the field. Some of the other teams, though, always looked like your dad recorded the game on his old video camera. Fans may have complained–fans will always complain–but aside from the limited broadcasts of postseason games, it was all we had. And so we dealt.

Before 2017, commentary could be hit-or-miss sometimes, to the point that it felt like sometimes broadcast interns were in charge of doing the play-by-play. But there were some excellent commentators for the league, people we looked forward to hearing every week because they provided insightful analysis.  And even when the commentary wasn’t the greatest before this season, at least they were there, on the sidelines, able to see all the action. Broadcast teams for the go90 streams were all located in Florida, a fact I personally didn’t know until I heard it from Equalizer Soccer’s breakdown of go90 this morning. But even not knowing that, of the only game I was actually able to watch in its entirety on the go90 app–FCKC’s 2-0 win over the Boston Breakers–the commentators mis-identified players, spoke over the action, and provided very little play-by-play. Broadcast teams are supposed to guide a viewer through a game, not distract them away from it.

But the biggest problem with go90’s quality was the constant interruption of streams for advertisements. For two forty-five minute halves, soccer is a blissful, ad-free, safe space. That’s one of the things that makes soccer soccer. There aren’t timeouts in soccer, there aren’t commercial breaks, there isn’t a 60-second race to quickly pee and refill your drink before the action starts up again.

Soccer goes non-stop. Or, at least, it did until this weekend, when every go90 stream I’ve heard about broke in to tell frustrated fans about other content available on the app. (Did you know it’s not easy to be 5’11 and a QB in the SEC? Did you? DID YOU?)

And fans are not the only ones upset by this intrusion into our sacred space. Players and coaches weren’t pleased either.

Yes, please fix this.

 

Access

A second issue for the NWSL’s streaming this year is ease of accessibility. Sure, everything the NWSL told fans to expect sounded great. In the league’s February announcement of the partnership with A+E Networks, highlighting Game of the Week broadcasts on Lifetime, it also added that

NWSL Media will oversee the live streaming of all matches and produce the games in high definition with a consistent, state-of-the-art approach that will include exclusive new and original digital content for pre-game, halftime and post-game segments. The joint venture is currently negotiating with potential partners to stream the games not broadcast on Lifetime.

And for months, that was all anyone knew. Until last week Thursday, when the partnership with go90 was made public. Fans were assured that, as:

A fully ad-supported, mobile streaming service, go90 will feature 98 NWSL games accessible via live and on-demand streaming for the 2017 season. To access, visit go90.com or simply download the go90 app via the App Store or Google Play. Users with go90 version 3.0 and later can cast live games from the go90 app to Airplay and Chromecast. No registration or authentication is required.

Then, on Friday, one day before the season began, the NWSL released their app (iOS only), which, at least for US fans, is just a mobile version of the website, offering nothing more than you can find anywhere else.

It seems like an overabundance of options, no?

Except, it’s not. Ironically, all these various options for watching the streaming NWSL matches actually left fans almost unable to watch at all. Watching on the go90 website itself was impossible, both live games and the “on-demand” matches were unavailable. Watching via the go90 app was partially successful. If you consider having to restart the match and by the grace of God alone find where you’d left off anytime something–a phone call from mom, a need to check social media, your phone just deciding to exit all applications on a whim, or, and far more likely, the stream freezing and requiring a restart of the app–interrupted your feed, a success.

So for domestic fans, the go90 partnership compromised their ability to watch the games this important opening weekend. To the point that advice was passed around about how to bypass the location blocks that provided international fans access to high-quality streams on the NWSL website.

As for watching games “on-demand,” after they’d aired, Jonathan Tannenwald at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News landed a scoop from insiders familiar to the NWSL’s deal with A+E and go90, and provided insight into the peculiarities of each’s on-demand access. In both cases, the games will be archived for 48 hours and then made available on the NWSL website and app.

But so far, they haven’t been, despite content disappearing from go90 already. And a quick search of “NWSL go90” on Twitter will tell you how people feel about the matter:

Granted, it’s a holiday weekend, but the NWSL weren’t deprived of a calendar when planning out their season. If you schedule your opening weekend for Easter, you damn well better make sure your staff is on-hand to get it off without a hitch.

Youtube was a preferred platform for fans because it offered a single way to watch (rather than the multitude of complicated, confusing, and unreliable options this season) that domestic and international fans could access equally. Content was immediately available after the live stream for viewing, viewing could be done on a mobile device but most often occurred on a computer, freeing up a mobile device to engage in conversation via social media about the game, thereby increasing any match’s digital footprint across multiple social media platforms. Of course there were issues, of course it wasn’t perfect. But by comparison, the streaming of non-televised games this first weekend has many wishing we could have Youtube back.

So, yes, there are problems. The league needs to answer the concerns of their fans, and sooner, rather than later.

But that’s not to say all is lost for this historic fifth season of the NWSL. The Game of the Week on Lifetime went off, as far as anyone could tell, without a hitch. It was absolutely a success and hopefully, even with the time (3 pm) and holiday weekend, the ratings will demonstrate that our fans show up. We show up.

When we can.

And that’s really the reason the streaming elements need to be worked out as soon as possible. For all its progress, the NWSL is still nowhere near stable. It’s done well, it has succeeded in ways every previous iteration failed, and now the front office of the league is thinking and planning in terms of years rather than one season to the next. They’ve built a fanbase, they’ve built an audience–they built it and we came, to paraphrase one of the greatest sports movies of all-time–but we have to be able to continue to show up, in person whenever possible and virtually whenever not, to help this league continue to grow.

So, as a fan, as a member of the media, I’m asking the powers that be: please, fix this.

Because, for a league trying to make its case for being the premiere professional women’s soccer league in the world, the NWSL came out looking like amateurs this weekend. And we deserve better–all of us. From the front office to the locker-room to the fans in the stands.

We deserve–and we can do–better.

 

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Lew Shepley
Guest

You’re too kind. The NWSL demonstrated (a)it is very incompetent or (b)it doesn’t care about its fans or (c)both.

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