Backpass: If a soccer team falls in the forest...
How KSE's long-running fight with Comcast and Dish kneecaps the team... and how it will end
When I was a kid…
(“oh God, is Gen X Soccer Rabbi going to tell us a story of the old days when coffee was a nickel and the hip new craze was hula-hooping?” “Yeah, kid, now shut up and sit down”)
… as I was saying. When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, the Dodgers, who played 162 games a year, were on TV 16 times. All year. The local independent affiliate, KTTV channel 11, showed 14 of those games - for free! Over rabbit ears! And then there were 2 national tv games. The internet, of course, didn’t broadcast the game over streaming video. Because this was 1990. The internet didn’t exist yet.
One enterprising new cable station made a special deal with the Dodgers: we’ll pay you a crapton for all the other games. The Dodgers demurred - “what will happen to our ticket revenue if you can simply watch the game at home?” The cable company responded “oh, don’t worry. We’ll charge so much that only the richest fans - the ones who buy the box seats and arrive in a limo - will be able to afford it.” I think it was $60 a month for this channel. I remember one time seeing a game at a friend’s house and then telling my mom that they had that channel and how cool it was, and my mom remarked at how wastefully extravagant it was to blow that much money on baseball. And I more or less agreed. So I kept doing what I was doing - I tuned in my clock radio to KABC 790 AM, and every night, Vin Scully described the game. I remember each season vividly. And yet I barely ever got to see the Dodgers with my own eyes.
Today, things are very different. You can watch virtually any soccer game you want, anywhere, as long as you have an internet connection. ESPN+ lets you watch the Indian Super League and Chinese Premier League. If you have CBS On Demand, you get all the NWSL games - every team. If you’re a big Ecuadorian soccer fan, you can get Fanatiz and watch that league. All the Liga MX teams are on Fubo. Here’s a link to livestream the Israeli Ligat Ha’Al. MLS broadcasts one game a week over *twitter*. Yeah, the place with all the Bernie memes.
Because this is a Colorado Rapids website - you all know where this is going.
If you live in Colorado*, you can watch the Colorado Rapids, but only if you have DirecTv (satellite) or AT&T TV (streaming). The cheapest DirecTv package including the Rapids costs ~$85 a month, for the first year., In the second year, you’ll likely pay $100 to $120 a month. AT&T TV (my God that is an awful name - it’s all acronyms and the letter ‘T’ appears thrice) is ~$75 a month, and requires that you have an internet connection, which will cost you at least another $55 a month. By the way, DirectTv is owned by AT&T; which probably explains why the price for AT&T TV is ridiculously high compared to similar streaming content platforms like Netflix (between $9 and18 a month) or Hulu ($7 a month). AT&T can’t undercut DirecTv - because it’s the same company. **
The Rapids, along with KSE’s other Colorado franchises, the Avalanche and the Nuggets, were dropped by Comcast and DISH TV back in September of 2019 over rights fees: KSE said ‘pay us $X per satellite subscriber for Altitude Sports’ and Comcast and Dish replied ‘You aren’t worth that.’ A stalemate was born - a stalemate that is now at month 18.
The cable/satellite business is currently in the midst of a total financial freefall, with more people ‘cutting the cord’ or refusing to even sign up in the first place. A recent study showed that 27% of current pay-TV subscribers plan to drop their cable or satellite packages altogether by the end of 2021. So, sadly, I understand Comcast and Dish’s position here. They’re losing fistfuls of money every day, and little ol’ Altitude is an easy cost-cutting measure.
Of course, Comcast is a lot more than cable TV - they also own NBC, Sky TV, Universal, and DreamWorks - and most importantly, they own Xfinity, their broadband company, and the largest cable internet provider in the US. Dish owns Sling TV and Boost Mobile. So while they are losing money, Comcast and AT&T have other streams of revenue - streams which might be increasing at the exact rate as the TV/cable side is contracting.
What I mean by all this is that we’re currently stuck in the middle phase of a great reorganization. Giant telecom companies are watching a shift of how consumers choose to buy their products. Most folks don’t want 57 channels and nothin’ on. Some people have oodles of expendable income and want all 300 channels. Some want just Netflix and the English Premier League, and they’ll also share their streaming service passwords with their ex-boyfriend and their mom.
The Rapids have been lost in the shuffle. KSE claims they can’t figure out a service that is affordable to produce and distribute, and yet profitable. Fans, overwhelmingly, are the ones getting screwed.
But actually, and this is really the most important point, it’s not so much the fans that get hurt the most by KSE’s intransigence and lack of acumen - it’s the Rapids themselves. I took a small survey of Colorado sports fans on twitter, and this is what I found:
A small sample size, of course, but of the folks surveyed, 92.6 % are either not watching the Rapids, or at least not paying KSE for the privilege of watching the Rapids. Fans aren’t getting screwed so much as they’re just giving up (or giving their money to a VPN). And that’s disastrous for the growth in interest in the Rapids in Colorado.
If a person in Colorado likes to watch soccer, there are dozens of options of leagues to watch that cost a fraction of what it would cost to sign up for DirecTv. If you were a kid growing up today, and you didn’t have any affiliation to a team, would you rather get Peacock Premium for $50 a year and become a Manchester United fan? Or become a Serie A fan and catch all the games on ESPN+ for $60 a year? Or pay **$85 a month** to watch the Rapids?
The Rapids lack of a solution is stifling any possible growth the team might have otherwise had. If you cannot go to the games in person due to Covid****, and you cannot watch them on TV for a reasonable price, then the best possible option for the average-joe soccer fan might be to drop the Rapids and move on. The Rapids might play soccer in 2021, and almost nobody will notice.
Because we aren’t living in 1990 anymore. There are lots of options to catch your team: you don’t have to lie on your bed every night, wondering what Orel Hersheiser’s 12-to-6 curveball actually looks like based on the announcer’s poetic description, like I used to. If you can be a fan of any team in the world, why would you choose the least available, most expensive option?
I will end all of this fairly gloomy unpleasantness on a bright note: this ridiculous and terrible predicament is almost-certainly temporary. MLS’ current TV deal with ESPN, Fox, and Unimas expires in 2022, and the league has informed all 25 of its current clubs, as well as its future expansion teams, to not have any local broadcast agreements that go beyond 2022. This is clearly in anticipation of syncing up the local and national rights of every team in the league in order that they all be sold together. That’s great news for us Rapids fans who don’t want to have to drop $1000 a year just to catch the ‘Pids on TV. Odds are the rights to the league will be sold to one company that offers both pay-tv and streaming options for prices more towards the ESPN+ end of the scale of around $10 a month than the AT&T TV end of the scale of $60 a month. No promises though.***
The Rapids strategic idiocy regarding a TV and streaming pricing scheme that is beyond the financial reach of many of their fans is infuriating. But hopefully, it will be short-lived, and will be replaced in just one more year with a more accessible, more affordable way to watch soccer. If KSE isn’t willing to grow the game, I am at least a tad optimistic that MLS will do so in their place, and soon.
*: And other places
**: I want to add - for the Nugs/Avs/Pids fan that says to themselves ‘I love my team and I will switch cable providers to watch them’ it isn’t as simple as calling, canceling, and subscribing. Cable/satellite contracts typically run two years and are basically unbreakable. So if you were unlucky enough, say, to move to Aurora in August of 2019 and you got Comcast cable, but you want to watch the Rapids - *not only* would you need to pay DirecTv $85 a month, *but you’d also be stuck paying Comcast for the full two years you signed up.
Getting out of a cable contract in America is only slightly easier than going into witness protection.
***: What does Altitude look like in 2022 with just the Nuggets and the Avs? Why does Altitude still exist even? I’m sure somebody in accounting thinks that KSE makes more money by holding the broadcast rights themselves rather than dissolving their broadcast division and selling out to Root or Fox Sportsnet. I don’t see how though.
****: MLS just announced an early April start date, and I imagine Covid restrictions on reduced attendance will be in place through mid-summer, at the least.