Let's take a break today from the 2013 team decompressions -- you're welcome! -- and think about something that tends to get lost in the wash: streaming of college lacrosse games. There are bigger issues surrounding the game right now (early recruiting, resource allocation, the impact to the NCAA Tournament of conference realignment and program growth, etc.), but lingering in the background is the issue of college lacrosse broadcasting. While the game has found a nice niche on television -- between ESPN, NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, and whatever Fox Sports will platform once that network sees its genesis in August, there is more college lacrosse on television now than ever before -- the bulk of college lacrosse broadcasts are still web-based.
This isn't a bad thing: exposure is exposure is exposure is exposure; as the game continues to grow throughout the country, schools and conferences making games -- any games! -- available for viewing (web-based or otherwise) is important for college lacrosse's permeance into the national consciousness. The game remains on the fringe of American sporting interest, and an embrace of internet broadcasts is a forward thinking approach that could return significant dividends. The Internet is powerful -- duh -- and tying, in large part, the future of the game to the web's ability to create universal access is a shrewd and powerful move.
I'm not, however, certain that all schools and conferences are approaching a web-based reality in the best way possible. As I wrote back in April, two divergent models have surfaced relative to lacrosse broadcasts, and I'm skeptical as to the force of one:
Over the past few seasons a lot of schools have started to realize the growth of lacrosse, pertinently noting its increased presence on furniture commonly called "television." This has been a driver, in part, for programs to platform their games on the web, streaming content through athletic department websites. How schools have approached this, however, has created disparate results: Many are utilizing a pay model (either on an a la carte or seasonal package basis) while others are pursuing a free-stream model. While both are welcome developments for stickheads, the latter approach -- freebie web broadcasts -- may be the more intelligent concept at this stage in college lacrosse's evolution.
The proof is tangible: At this point in the year, I have watched more Notre Dame, Yale, Bellarmine, Vermont, and NEC home games (among others) than I have at any point in my putrid existence. The exposure that these schools have given to their programs has arguably exceeded the cost of producing free video streams of the games; these schools are benefitting from people dying to watch live lacrosse pulling up their games simply because they have a hankering for watching twine receive tickling. It doesn't even matter what the matchup is -- Wagner playing Mercer, Vermont playing Holy Cross, etc.. People just want to watch games, and the free-stream model satiates a stickhead's appetite for lacrosse without the burden of a cost-benefit analysis.
This isn't necessarily a call for all schools to adopt a free streaming model for their lacrosse games (after all, this is the greatest country in the world, and the desire to generate a little revenue pursuant to an offered product is part of the American experience). Rather, it is evidence that free streaming works for lacrosse, and that schools that adopt only a pay model should consider putting a game or two on the web for free (even if it is a terrible one) to grow the overall exposure of their programs. There is value in no-cost offerings -- just ask Seth Godin -- and a lot of athletic departments and conferences are missing the boat on a great opportunity.
Which is why the Ivy League's announcement this week of its introductory subscription packages for the conference's new digital network is something that makes me do that mouth-fart thing. Now, it's not clear exactly what level of lacrosse the network will platform (the release seems to focus on football, hoops, and hockey), but that doesn't erode the pricing model for access to the network: anywhere from $95.95 to $119.95 for a league-wide 12-month subscription; a four-month league-wide package of around $50; a one-month league-wide package of around $16; and a host of other packages built around specific schools, sports, and daily offerings. These prices are generally reasonable (I'll likely pop for a league-wide four-month package for lacrosse season depending on what the network chooses to broadcast), but that doesn't address the issue: should the Ivy League -- and its membership -- seek a subscription package for a game that doesn't really have tremendous viewership depth at the moment? And, more importantly, how does this impact schools that were on a free or pseudo-free model (like Yale, which was broadcasting games on YouTube)?
To me, this Ivy pursuit makes sense if conference games are the focus of network broadcasts. The league should own its product, and I don't think many folks would complain about dropping a couple of bucks to watch an Ivy League game day. For other lacrosse games, though, I think there's a tiered approach -- make determinations about pricing out broadcasts for elite non-conference games (Syracuse-Princeton; Virginia-Cornell; etc.), but make the games that draw lesser interest free for broadcast, either on the digital network or through the school's individual broadcast outlets. Use these games as an appetizer or teaser to the network as a whole, a way to drum up interest around a team and the game itself. What's the harm? There's only benefit in that scenario, and the return on investment could be stronger than simply making a relatively disinterested viewer pay a fee for a game that he or she may not want to see compared to other games. I know for a fact -- it's science! -- that the vast majority of links that I publish to streams that are free take more hits than those that are associated with pay streams. (Both the site analytics and comments on game day threads confirm this.) There's a benefit to free, especially when the alternative is a pricing model that doesn't work universally.
I hope the Ivy League Digital Network takes off like crazypants, but I mostly hope that the conference approaches its lacrosse offerings intelligently.