The national firestorm started as a PR problem—Australian fans grumbling en masse online about their inability to watch the World Cup. Then the country’s prime minister stepped in, and it became a debacle. “We’re starting to see the rights of the people being eroded,” decried an academic after looking at a faulty streaming service. Such is the state of sports media in 2018.
So what actually happened? Here’s a quick-and-dirty timeline of a tumultuous week for Aussie soccer fans and the sport’s broadcasters:
Friday: For the first time in decades, World Cup games were not shown on Australia’s public TV network, SBS. Instead, telecommunications operator Optus aired the games through its various apps for free to its phone or internet customers and for $14.99/month to non-Optus subscribers. Except a large, unknown number of viewers couldn’t actually watch, encountering playback errors and endless buffering screens instead. A spokesman apologized that night and cited unexpected viewership demand for the issues.
Sunday: With failures continuing throughout the weekend, Optus CEO Allen Lew said, “We should have done better,” adding, “We will solve this problem by the end of this evening.”
Monday: Lew heard from Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and, unable to announce a solution, allowed SBS to broadcast the games for the following two days.
Wednesday: The deal for SBS to show games on its free-to-air network was extended throughout the World Cup group stage as Lew said, “There is no doubt this has adversely affected the Optus brand.”
While the vitriol was initially focused at Optus, as the episode spiraled, so did the discussion of its causes, ultimately pointing towards macrotrends that are playing out here in the U.S., just as much as they are down under. “As soon as Optus got these rights, everyone said this would be a disaster,” Australian tech journalist Adam Turner says. “Everyone knew.”
Two years ago, Optus similarly captured the rights to exclusively broadcast English Premier League soccer matches in Australia, and they encountered similar technical problems early on. While sports have been available online for years now, the process of distributing live streams over the internet remains technically complex, especially considering the increasing number of devices and platforms companies need to develop unique solutions for. Despite the struggles, Optus was happy with the results. Soccer fans on other cell contracts bought Optus plans solely for the EPL access, and existing Optus customers had one more reason not to switch services. So Optus went for additional exclusive sports content, which brings us to the issue of the World Cup rights being available to begin with…
On the same day that Turnbull drew praise for stepping in and demanding Optus improve access to the games, members of Parliament challenged him in-person to apologize for causing this situation in the first place.
In 2014, Turnbull served as Minister for Communications when the government cut SBS’s funding, despite warnings from the channel’s managing director that a smaller budget could force him to surrender some World Cup Rights. Two years later, SBS did just that, giving Optus exclusive rights to 39 of the 64 matches. “Optus is completely reinventing how Australians engage with football,” Lew said at the time.
The Australian government maintains a list of sporting events so important to the country that the free-TV providers are given the first opportunity to claim the rights, but much of the World Cup was removed from that list with little fanfare, says Western Sydney University lecturer Keith Parry, as the collection shrinks due to pressure from new media players. In time, he’s seen recognition that access to certain events should be maintained as “a right of cultural citizenship” turn into “a grudging acceptance that you do need to pay.” He expects the opposition party to continue hammering the government over this latest fiasco, arguing that they’ve sided with big business over people’s interest. But in the end? “I think money is going to win out,” Parry says.
An executive at a leading U.S. streaming platform vendor said that American fans shouldn’t be worried about this type of failure happening stateside. It is still typical to see spot-outages for short periods of time, but nothing of this magnitude, not in 2018. “If it were to happen here,” he says, “somebody did something wrong.”
So let Optus’s struggles stand as a cautionary tale, because some of the underlying factors look eerily similar. Our network of providers, platforms and devices is dizzyingly complex. Our pro-business environment is seeing old standbys shrink and newcomers rise. Our tech and telecom companies are signing content deals as a means of differentiating themselves. For now, those have largely been small, toe-in-the-water agreements. But sooner rather than later, a broadcast neophyte is going to make a splash. When that does happen, the company will promise to completely reinvent our sports experience. And it will, for better or worse.