The Inside Story of Scottish Football Streaming
With the fans across Scotland unable to support their teams in person, clubs have adopted a pay-per-view streaming service to allow supporters to watch matches from the comfort of their own homes. Callum Watt explores the ins and outs of streaming Scottish football and considers whether this model could extend past the current regulations.
The 2020/21 Scottish football season has been different in many ways – from shortened lower league campaigns, to the 2019/20 Scottish Cup Final being held five days before Christmas, the campaign just doesn’t feel the same. However, the lack of supporters in stands and on the terraces have, above all else, made the 20/21 season feel alien to most. Gone are the days (at least for now) of longing for match-day to come, for a pre-match pint with your pals, for the highs and lows that come from following your team. Now, the height of excitement is opening your laptop for an hour and a half to watch your team from afar. “Pie” used to be the three letter word beginning with P that was synonymous with Scottish football – now, it’s “PPV.”
The television rights to the SPFL has long been a contentious issue, with many feeling that the Scottish game has been undersold to broadcasters, who would rather show a “Super” Sunday clash between Fulham and West Brom than any Scottish team aside from the Old Firm. However, to their credit, Sky Sports have upped their game and bid significantly more than BT Sport for exclusive rights to the Scottish Premiership, showing 48 games a season for the next five years. Furthermore, this season, Sky agreed to allow Premiership clubs to sell a ‘virtual season ticket’ and show all home games not selected by Sky for coverage on their own streaming service while social distancing restrictions are in place.
Streaming in Scottish football is not an entirely new concept – all Premiership teams already had their own online ‘TV’ platforms, such as Aberdeen’s RedTV. These services were usually only beneficial to overseas fans who could watch live matches without being impacted by the 3pm blackout. However, in light of Sky’s announcement, clubs were able to open up these services to season ticket holders and one-time pay-per-view buyers. For those lower-league clubs without existing streaming platforms, they scrambled to set them up before their restart in October. ‘Stream Digital’ was the platform of choice for 11/12 top-flight clubs, as it offered varying degrees of access for season ticket holders and one-off viewers, as well as enabling access to exclusive behind the scenes content, accessible at any time. Prior to this season, many lower league clubs’ digital presence only went as far as having a Twitter account and YouTube channel, but now all 42 SPFL clubs have their own streaming services. Edinburgh City, for example, set up ECFC TV which is powered by ‘infinity21’, and Arbroath use ‘DLR Media’.
Since all Premiership clubs already had the framework in place for TV-standard broadcasting, the content found on their streaming services is of a high standard. Hibs TV’s The Match, for instance, has two commentators and David Tanner is joined in the studio by special guests for pre and post-match analysis, so it feels like a value-for-money production, which paying season ticket holders will appreciate. On the other hand, clubs in League One and League Two often just have a single camera set up, one commentator if any, and no replays on a stream which begins five minutes before kick-off. That is no slight on those clubs, it’s simply just indicative of the gulf in resources – besides, anything is better than not watching your team at all!
The Championship is slightly different in regards to streaming. Scotland’s second tier already had its own TV deal, with BBC Scotland showing one live match most Friday evenings. However, this season the SPFL has linked up with ‘StreamAMG’ to create a streaming platform for overseas fans. As a result, each Championship ground has been fitted with Pixellot camera systems, which are unmanned and use AI ball-tracking technology to produce a HD output. Teams in the Championship have the ability to opt-in and use the Match Centre platform for their domestic broadcasts, which means they can save money on producing their own streams. Heart of Midlothian, amongst others, also produce their own broadcast for Hearts TV, meaning that their UK fans can enjoy a better-quality stream than the sometimes erratic Pixellot cameras can produce.
COST TO FANS
The cost of streaming for fans can be quite significant over time. During the pandemic, many clubs encouraged the renewal of season tickets, initially to guarantee a seat when matches restarted but laterally to ensure access to live streams. Prior to the SPFL and Sky’s agreement, it was thought that a season ticket would be the only way to watch your team online, so many purchased one. It then became clear that PPV access would be available, so some fans may have forked out for a season ticket where they normally would not. In addition, season tickets only allow access for home league matches – supporters still need to pay upwards of £10 to watch away matches or any cup games their team may play, therefore incurring a hefty bill throughout the season so far. Further still, any matches selected for coverage by Sky Sports (league) or Premier Sports (both cups) require subscriptions to those respective services.
The above tweet by Pie and Bovril shows just how much extra PPV can add onto fans’ spending. For an adult Dundee United fan to watch every league game from the beginning of the season until now, it would cost them between £437 and £622 (depending on where they usually sit at Tannadice), plus an additional monthly cost of around £50 for their 3 games shown on Sky Sports so far. Now, it should be noted that the cost of following your team home and away during any normal season is probably even more when you factor in travel, food, and drink, but for the lesser experience that is online streaming, it’s a hefty price to pay.
COST TO CLUBS
The cost of this new normal to clubs across the country is vast, not least to Scotland’s lower-league teams. Providing live streams requires the creation of a suitable platform, adequate equipment, and media teams’ wages being paid. Premiership teams had a head start with their resources already in use, and Championship teams saved on the cost of equipment thanks to the SPFL’s Pixellot system. However, those further down the pyramid and beyond have been impacted by all the costs incurred, hence the shortened league season and continuing fear that some clubs may not survive much longer without the presence of fans.
There have also been fears that streaming in the SPFL may result in reduced attendances once social distancing is relaxed. Some feared that fans may prefer the convenience of being able to watch their team without leaving the sofa and be reluctant to attend matches even when allowed back, therefore further impacting clubs’ finances in future. However, the rights agreement between the SPFL and Sky exists only until full capacity is allowed once again, at which point the rules regarding live broadcasting in the UK revert back to what they were before.
IPTV & STREAMING SITES
Many IPTV providers allow their subscribers to watch any Scottish Premiership match they want for as little as £5 per month and have done for years. Subscribers to these services can watch any club TV channel as well as regular Sky Sports etc for a fraction of the cost. With the obvious rise in popularity and availability of streams this season, many sports streaming sites now also show SPFL matches to be watched freely and easily. Watching in this way saves the punter money, but also takes away clubs’ PPV income, something which is vital during these tough financial times.
Steps have been taken to tackle similar issues in the past, such as Hibs TV implementing a VPN blocker to prevent UK fans watching untelevised matches by spoofing their location. However, as streams of Scottish football become more readily available, greater steps have been taken, like IP address blocks between certain hours by some telecom companies.
In summary, streaming in Scottish football is the new phenomenon for the 20/21 season but I hope it is not a trend which has to continue much longer. Watching online is the next best thing to actually being at your team’s ground, but while club legends appearing as studio guests is all well and good, I’m sure every supporter will agree with me when I say I’d like nothing more than to get back to what was once the norm and cheer on my team in person – there’s very few feelings that can compare.