We got confirmation today that the free video stream for the Giro will not be available for this year’s edition. It leaves fans looking for new channels and ways to watch the race.
It’s also symptomatic of a structural problem in the sport where different races are on different channels. Even the most loyal fan is left struggling with broadcast schedules, TV subscriptions and more. All this is hampering efforts to build the sport.
Imagine you’re a Formula 1 fan, you can find a channel and perhaps pay for a premium subscription but you’re guaranteed every race will be on your TV. By contrast cycling’s mode is atomistic and equivalent to watching the Grand Prix de Monaco on one channel whilst the Malaysian GP is on another.
Now if it’s a channel hop away, no problem. But often it requires real effort and cost instead. Rather than skipping channels, you are left having to install a satellite dish to get one channel and then acquiring a special internet TV offer for another and maybe getting cable TV installed for another. Worse, fix that satellite dish onto the roof this year and maybe the broadcast deal is changed for next year.
Right now many US viewers can watch the Giro with a subscription to BeIn Sport but this is a cable channel. If you live somewhere where there’s no cable then maybe there’s no Giro.
Each race negotiates its own TV package. More strictly each race organiser, so for example Tour de France company ASO sells its rights in one package meaning the Tour and Roubaix are on the same channel whilst RCS sells the rights to its races and the Giro and Milan-Sanremo are on another. But after these two companies the market gets very fragmented with lone races often selling their TV rights by themselves.
Pirates of the Videostream
However there are are solutions for viewers. The most common one is the pirate video stream. The technology is simple. Business Week explains how it happens:
a $50 HDTV adapter, which plugs into a computer’s USB port and allows the PC to receive live TV. Deploying so-called screencast programs that make copies of everything on the PC screen, a user can then capture a channel carrying a sports event and stream it over a live video site.
Websites like cyclingfans.com and steephill.tv offer plenty of race information and amongst the content they list the websites where these video streams can be watched. Sometimes there are legitimate video links but often they’re the pirate variety with more pop-ups and viruses than a children’s library.
Just as some swarthy type sailed the seas in leaking hulks encrusted with barnacles, others had sleek ships. It’s the same for those navigating the web. With a virtual private network (VPN) you can have an account that lets you connect to the web via a server in the country of your choice. Often this service comes via subscription for example Witopia (no endorsement, I’m not a customer, just mentioning an example of the technology).
Select, say, Italy, and the VPN tunnels your web connection to a server in Italy so that when you visit a sports or TV website you are not blocked by the geo-restriction service. Better still, you can get the quality video stream intended for the domestic audience. Gone are the Georges Braque pixels along with the pop-ups and malware too. It’s as if you’re in the foreign country although obviously with the foreign language too.
However I’m told some broadcasters are wise to this and have been blocking internet connections within their home country if they suspect they’re being used for the wrong reasons so you could easily pay for this only to get nothing.
It depends on jurisdiction but often watching a pirate video stream is legal whilst the the act of streaming the content onto the web is illegal. But it’s still questionable to watch as you’re not paying for content and by extension not supporting the sport.
But there’s more to it than that. If you can’t get the race on TV or via a legal internet stream such as the useful Eurosport Player then viewing a stream means you’re not necessarily depriving a legitimate broadcaster of audience or revenue. Even the biggest teams tweet links to the pirate feeds. Perhaps none of this makes it right but it seems to be widespread nonetheless to the point where there are so many races available to watch via a range of sources that the problem these days is only one of quality, of bandwidth: now that we have these races, we want them in HD.
A Master Plan
It’s a topic for another day but imagine if all the main races could club together and sell their races as one package? Suddenly the potential audience could be huge. Better still, rather than races competing against each other in the distribution market, suddenly a monopoly is created. This could mean fans are forced to open their wallets but the certainty and stability of the offer could be a price worth paying. Especially because you can probably find the Tour de France easily but imagine a single channel that promises to bring you every World Tour race and many others too.
But the problem here is that the largest audience for the Tour is in France, most people watching the Giro are in Italy. So the main negotiations are with the domestic broadcaster. Sure it’s good to have the free stream for the Giro but at best this got 116,000 viewers last year, and the daily average was 49,300 a day. When we see numbers like this we see that the market for a video stream is not as big as you might think.
Cycling’s jumbled calendar means different race owners are left to negotiate their own TV deals. This means fans trying to follow the sport are left with the often cluttered choice of hertzian TV, satellite, cable and internet subscriptions. Even if you do have cable running into your home or a satellite receiver then you’ll often find different packages from rival networks each hosting the races. Faced with the conflicting options it’s easy to see why pirate streams have become widespread.
Perhaps the sport needs to think of a way to stream races? But it’s also a question of expectations. We’re getting used to having many races to watch but we’re not used to them being in high quality on TV and it’s the gap that frustrates.
Longer term we could ask if the TV will survive? But for now cycling fans are left with a variety of TV channels and internet subscriptions or alternative pirate options and VPNs. Faced with this many will just go for a ride, it’s not worth the hassle. But if the core audience is finding it too hard to follow, don’t expect the world to watch.