The announcement was bold and brash. According to the press release, this was to be an “innovative way of delivering more contemporary sports coverage that appeals to existing audiences and extends access to new fans.”
So, did the decision to grant ‘global sports provider’ ELEVEN SPORTS live and exclusive rights to broadcast the US PGA Championship in the UK and Ireland – taking the final men’s major of the season off the telly and putting it online – pay off?
Well, yes and no.
If you can overlook the haphazard start on Thursday, where the scheduled 1.30pm launch didn’t get properly underway until after 2pm, ELEVEN SPORTS got a lot of things right on its official UK launch.
So, let’s start there.
Dominik Holyer did a sterling job ‘anchoring’ the coverage, whilst Anna Whiteley and Seb Carmichael-Brown made the hard job of interviewing players after their rounds look easy. The real star of the coverage, however, was Jamie Donaldson. The Welsh Ryder Cup star, pictured below, offered plenty of insight and humour alongside Holyer in the commentary booth. If broadcasting execs have any sense whatsoever, he’s destined to do lots more of this stuff, and soon.
In spite of people’s misgivings about the registration process, registering to ELEVEN SPORTS and claiming the seven-day free trial was absolutely painless, as was cancelling the subscription. There was no hard sell to keep your business or page upon page of “please don’t go” requests blocking your way. Kudos to them for that.
However, it’s hard not to feel that there were many golden opportunities missed by the ELEVEN team.
The cutaways to Holyer and Donaldson in the commentary booth were ill advised. It looked like they had commandeered a vacant cubicle in the corner of a busy telemarketing company. For an audience accustomed to – and impressed by – glitzy Sky Sports studios, this wasn’t a good look. It gave the production an unnecessary ‘shoe-string’ feel.
The pre-event marketing was poor, too. Even late into the Sunday, many social media users appeared to be oblivious to the fact that they could watch the coverage free with a seven-day trial. ELEVEN should never have allowed this to happen.
Watching the coverage via the app on your mobile phone was, in a word, frustrating. If you wanted to use your phone for anything else – say, social media or text messaging – you had to leave the app and stop viewing). When you returned, fortunately you didn’t have to sign-in again but you did have to wait for the stream to reload. In time, it would be nice to think that you’ll be able to use other features on your phone but still have your video playing in the background.
There were some buffering and audio-visual synchronicity issues but nowhere near as many as you might have anticipated.
That said, the lack of a Chromecasting function was a basic error. What this experiment proved is that people are ready to embrace new broadcasters but they’re not totally sold yet on watching live sport on laptops or phones, whilst their big-screen TVs lie redundant in the corner.
That is arguably the biggest obstacle that ELEVEN and other streaming businesses will need to clear. One of the beauties of live sport is that it is, at its best, a shared experience. Friends and families will all sit around TVs to enjoy the cup final, the Superbowl, the opening ceremony of the Olympics and, yes, the final round of major golf tournaments. Huddling around a laptop just isn’t just a different experience in that regard – it’s a worse one.
Perhaps that will change in time. Until it does, finding a way to marry streaming and television is going to be essential. Whilst the long-term transition of live sport to online platforms seems inevitable – and why not? – such providers would do well not to hurry it along too much. It’s much easier to lead people to follow you than force them to take a leap of faith.
But here’s the thing: ELEVEN SPORTS will only get better.
It was a far from perfect launch but, equally, it wasn’t a disaster. It now has, both literally and figuratively, a strong platform to build on. They’ve thrown down quite a gauntlet to traditional broadcasters.
It will be fascinating to see what happens next.