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Opinion

Online streaming is part of the future, but it cannot dominate

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14th September, 2020
17

On Thursday, I enjoyed my birthday with cheap champagne, a trip to the rollercoasters and a Souths victory over Wests.

This was done by ignoring my better intuitions and taste buds, friends that insisted on scaring the life of me, and the wonders of the internet.

Outside of Australasia, you can pay £25/month for a WatchNRL pass – it gives you access to all eight games, and all the relevant talk shows.

Even in times of deep economic recession, I can say it is money well spent. I subscribed in the early post-lockdown days, as the NRL restarted to hales of safety-conscious, bandana-wearing indignation, and most people constituted going outside with certain death.

The only thing that continues to keep me anything resembling sane are liberal interpretation of the British government’s diktats, inordinate amounts of gin, and the stability of knowing the Bunnies will raise your hopes just enough to dash them in the coming weeks.

WatchNRL is especially useful when the televisual broadcaster over here, Sky Sports, declines to put even half the games on TV, instead preferring to show highlights of the 2017 Gloucester Cheese Roll or nasal-gazing Premier League stars from their lounges through Zoom.

ANZ Stadium empty

The Bunnies sure do know how to disappoint. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

With the ever-expanding digitisation of our lives, from smartphones to fridges, toilets and performance enhancers (one day), and streaming services taking more and more sports rights, its not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest top-tier rugby league will eventually be broadcast domestically over the internet.

But would this be desirable or wise? I admit that I am not the most neutral of judges when it comes to such a debate.

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Despite my thankfulness for NRL streaming, and the ironic fact that you’re reading this over the internet, I myself am not a fan of the increasing Anschluss of IT into every fabric of our lives: I may be one of the only people under 25 not to use social media and prefer my news from paper than randomers on the dark corners of the web. (Please feel free to comment below).

That said, even this relative Luddite appreciates the role that the internet can have.

Whilst fans are locked out by limited capacities, and personal incomes decimated by self-inflicted economic suicide, it makes some sense to allow fans of individual clubs to pay a one-off fee to watch their team for 80 minutes than fork out $$$ for a service that they won’t use most of the time.

It may allow the NRL to forego the middleman, keep the profit that the TV companies factor in for themselves, and reinvest it into the game instead of the televisual suits and faceless higher-ups.

There’s also a strain of thought that desires the transition away from terrestrial broadcasting to satiate the younger demographic that have shunned traditional TV for on-demand streaming.

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As much as the old boys may not like to hear it, it is important for long-term stability to get the eyeballs of the yoof on what we have to offer.

Many of the same arguments against internet streaming were used against TV broadcasting back in ye olden days – when the French gave a gallic shrug and a firm ‘non’ to national TV coverage, for fear of damaging crowds, those domestic attendances have reduced into the contemporary irrelevancy it finds itself in today.

Whilst the game needs to adapt with the times, shifting entirely to an on-demand streaming service is fraught with danger. Like everything online, there’s a risk that the game falls into a self-perpetuating echo chamber that shuts out the wider community within which it exists.

Obviously, it won’t suddenly disappear out of the national conscience. But just as it took 20 years of plugging to finally produce a Victorian NRL player, if the game turns in on itself, catering only for its most hardened-on fans, it can hardly expect the rest of the country to follow it down the internet rabbit hole.

The link to the casual viewer, those not caught in the intrepid, self-defeating and churlish code wars, who may even be inspired to attend a game based on what they’ve seen on TV, aren’t going to fork out on a specialist subscription.
In direct contrast to everything the modern world stands for, the answer lies with some form of compromise.

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If the TV companies are losing money, then a renegotiated smaller deal can be acceptable, as was seen in May this year. Perhaps if six of the eight games were shown via tele (some free-to-air), with two through a streaming service.

But I’m not Peter V’landys: I can’t pull off the smart-casual look, I still have most of my barnet, and most importantly I am not familiar with the inner workings of sports broadcasting negotiations.

The game must not give up on traditional TV, for it stands to lose links with the wider public and the casual viewer.

But if the right suitor comes along to complement existing coverage, it would be churlish to decline.