Half-Baked: Digital broadcast for bike races

Stuttering, pirate feeds are lame. Can't I buy something better?

A quick show of hands: how many North American readers out there are cycling broadcast pirates?

While our European counterparts enjoy regular televised cycling coverage, many American fans scour sites like Steephill.tv or Cyclingfans.com for sketchy, illegal feeds.

But as we all know, the pirate’s life sucks. The illegal feeds fill our computers with ads for porn and blackjack sites. The video quality is grainy and regularly craps out when the action heats up. How many times have you frantically clicked on a Flemish feed because the English one died?

Problem: Watching pirated TV feeds makes me want to throw my computer against the wall.

Half-Baked Cycling Idea: Create a streaming platform for all major bike races.

Okay, let’s back up. There is a legal, albeit expensive solution to this problem, and that is to simply purchase an extended cable TV package that includes NBC Sports and Universal Sports, and then purchase a subscription from the website www.cycling.tv. The combined streaming umbrella of the three should cover most races.  

But what if there was an online network that had it all?

Investigating this half-baked idea led me to a handful of sources from within cycling, broadcast TV and sports industry. The explanation requires a basic understanding of the financial relationship between sports events and broadcasters.  

I’m simplifying here, but in the traditional sports broadcast relationship, a sports league (or race owner) sells his television rights to a broadcaster, which then sells advertising spots and negotiates a carriage fee with a cable company. In the US, major broadcasters often require the big leagues (NFL, NBA, etc) to include their digital and mobile streaming rights in the TV contracts. This is because broadcasters are scared that streaming services could cannibalize TV ratings.

This is not the case with the major US bike races. The Amgen Tour of California, US Pro Challenge and Tour of Utah have retained their streaming rights in their respective TV agreements. Instead, the races stream the events through the company Tour Tracker, and sell advertising on that platform.

I don’t know about you, but the live streaming service has made me a huge fan of the American races. Tour Tracker includes extras like GPS tracking and real-time statistics, and allows me to stream the entire thing during work hours.

So why don’t the European races create a similar product? According to my sources, the explanation is a mixture of traditionalism and entrenched business relationships. Unlike US races, which are paid very little cash from broadcasters, the European races bring in big bucks from their TV deals. They are wary that streaming could kill the golden TV goose.

Pirated race feeds aren't exactly well-polished in presentation or delivery : pirated race feeds aren't exactly well-polished in presentation or delivery
Pirated race feeds aren't exactly well-polished in presentation or delivery : pirated race feeds aren't exactly well-polished in presentation or delivery

Pirated race feeds are free, but boy can they be garbage

Bob Stapleton, the Chairman of USA Cycling and a longtime tech innovator, told me that cultural reasons also exist.    

“The Tour de France does what they’ve done for 50 years and they’re just not interested in changing,” he said. “I think they are structurally and culturally not tuned in to the potential for creating a global audience with a streaming service.”

American entrepreneurs have tried. Allan Padgett, the CEO and creator of Tour Tracker, said he has approached European races about broadcasting on his platform to no avail.

Padgett said races could free up the streaming rights for the right price. That leaves him with two options: find a sponsor to pay the rights fee, or charge viewers to use the service.

“Pay per view a more likely scenario,” Padgett said. “You can say, ‘Let us have the digital rights and instead of you getting nothing for them from the broadcaster, we’ll give a 50/50 profit share on everyone who watches.’”

But the hurdle here circles back to the prevalence of TV piracy in the US cycling community. You see, after years of watching illegal online feeds, US cycling fans (myself included) are accustomed to watching races for free. Padgett said he regularly surveys Tour Tracker users, and has asked them if they would be willing to pay a nominal fee for a streaming service. Without those fees, a streaming service would fail.

“I was surprised at the number of people who say they wouldn’t pay 99 cents for the services,” he said. "I have this hope that at some point you can convince the cycling community that paying a few bucks to get the super high quality experience is better than stealing the low quality video that you get for free on these [illegal] sites."

Still, Padgett is confident, and believes it’s going to come down to “a gamble by us and a gamble by the races” to establish a streaming service.

And that reality could be here quicker than you think. Stapleton said USA Cycling is investing heavily in streaming and technology for the 2015 UCI World Championships in Richmond, Virginia. The UCI, he said, has showed in being flexible with the streaming rights for the event, too. Stapleton envisions a digital broadcast that includes GPS tracking, on-bike cameras and other tech innovations.

“We want to bring a modern approach to broadcast, to show them what opportunities are out there,” Stapleton said. “We want [Worlds] to be a technology showcase.”

But if Richmond doesn’t convince cycling to take a gamble on streaming, Stapleton said that the sport could attempt to force the change. While the races traditionally own the rights, the teams and the UCI hold some sway on the broadcast arrangements.

“If two of the three stakeholders work together, they can make it happen,” Stapleton said.

So while this idea is less half-baked than I originally believed, it is far from an easy fix. Perhaps we broadcast pirates could Kickstart funds for a streaming service, or simply have a gentlemen’s agreement not to watch the sketchy feeds. 

My computer would appreciate that.

At BikeRadar, we strive to bring you the best inventions and innovations from the bike world. But in Half-Baked, contributor Fred Dreier explores his own wacky bike ideas, and consults various experts as to their validity.

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