Readying for Long Beach, the brain trust at ALMS are still wringing their collective hands over the negative fan backlash and media criticism of the ABC-ESPN3.com Sebring coverage. Even some of the teams are questioning the series organizer. After all, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. They, the ALMS, hyped their new ABC-ESPN Network package and world-wide, live coverage of their races via the web as groundbreaking. They were venturing into an exciting new digital medium, with a major network partner and opportunities to tap a fresh audience and revenue for an economically struggling series. What an introduction it would be; Sebring, North America’s premier sports car race, steeped in tradition of great racing battles between the celebrated marquees and larger than life drivers. Definitively the ALMS series crown jewel and the inaugural ILMC (Intercontinental Le Mans Championship) event of 2011, the timing and event to debut the new package couldn’t be better.
Then it happened. The live webcast that wasn’t live worldwide and whatever you want to call the 90 minutes of Sebring on ABC the next day-except in California where you got tennis in the time slot-and it isn’t all grand for the ALMS. Widespread critical backlash went viral over the same medium the ALMS is gambling on. Media, bloggers, fan forums, even some of their own teams went negative. Some were balanced and a few were positive, but most were hyper-critical. Fortunately it’s not as bad as many would have you believe, but it isn’t as good as the ALMS damage control wants you to believe.
Live-streaming is the future of entertainment and sports and in the very near future. I’m not talking about five or 10 years from now. I expect in the next two to three years the majority of our live sports will be streamed on-demand. Viewers know this. Broadcasters know this. The advertisers know this. The wave of TV boxes outside of mainstream cable and satellite are growing; Apple TV, Google TV, Boxee Box and the new ROKU are just a few. The mediums potential is unlimited and barley tapped. I imagine watching a race streamed live in HD with the ability to choose camera locations – something along the lines of the NFL Sunday Ticket™ with multiple-game windows. The ability to interact and pick the in-car shot I want, or jump to the pits. Did I mention I want the choice of audio; like pit to driver communication or live-mic all the team managers? The NFL does it with players, why not drivers and team principals? The point is the possibilities are limitless, as is the audience and sponsor exposure.
Scott Atherton and the ALMS know live-streaming is changing the dynamics of how we access our entertainment and sports and offer them the greatest potential to tap a new audience and new sponsors. Where they failed wasn’t with the medium, but the implementation. The hype with the new package from ALMS was every fan would have the ability to watch every race live. It was inferred that you could watch via ESPN 3 or AmericanLemans.com from anywhere in the world, but ESPN3 is not provided by every internet service provider. No ESPN3 via your ISP meant no coverage and ABC – ESPN3.com did not allow the ALMS to stream the race inside the US. Another missed opportunity was neglecting the Apple iPhone, iPad user. Those devices are not flash enabled which meant no coverage for them. Where is the logic in limiting access to your fans and any new audience?
“ESPN 3’s live-streaming of Sebring wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great and for a sport brand that’s selling itself as being a technology leader, there can be no exceptions. Mediocrity doesn’t cut it.”
The ALMS must make good on the content end otherwise they lose audience and sponsors. That didn’t happen either. ESPN 3’s live-streaming of Sebring wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great and for a sport brand that’s selling itself as being a technology leader, there can be no exceptions. Mediocrity doesn’t cut it. What makes good content is the ability to engage your viewers so they will watch to the end. The medium has moved beyond just good visual coverage and knowledgeable and affable announcers. The latter was the best part of the ESPN3.com stream.
Today both have to be amazing and engage the viewer every minute to the end. There needs to be interaction with the viewer and event. There’s only so much stutter-streaming and out of synch sound that one can take. Without exception, poor delivery ruins content and viewers turn-off. No matter how great the visuals, or insightful the announcers, it does not matter if you can’t see it.
The ALMS tried to duck the real issues as problems on the viewers end. True, to get good internet streaming you must have sufficient and consistent broadband speed and some devices and AV connections can be culpable in the overall quality (or lack thereof) of content reception. I’m fortunate to have more than sufficient band-speed and the hardware and software to get webcast in HD. The ALMS and ESPN3.com did not deliver content to keep me engaged often enough, much less for 12 hours. There were some good moments but not enough. There were not enough split screen shots, like the good run showing the Dyson Mazda on-track and simultaneous in-car of the driver. Why didn’t ESPN develop content that I could utilize via their dashboard PIP (picture-in-picture)? It could have been great to switch on the PIP and choose a second camera location. Even a previously taped segment would have been something. ESPN 3 has the technology and capability to offer this interaction, but it wasn’t there.
As for the TV coverage, the new package is targeted to a different audience than the hardcore ALMS fan. ABC’s 90 minutes of Sebring highlight telecast was bound to disappoint the hardcore GT and sports prototype fan. The ALMS knew there would be a percentage of disheartened fans that preferred the live broadcast Speed had provided. They expected some fallout. I recorded the broadcast. After the first ten minutes I used my fast forward quite a bit. At times it felt like an infomercial. I will watch the Long Beach telecast. I expect the shorter races will have a different feel than attempting to edit a 12 hour endurance race down to 90 minutes.
In a time of instant communication live broadcast is not just the norm, but the expectation for audience and sponsor. Tape–delay is a dirty word. In a perfect world the ALMS package would give us the option of a live TV broadcast and live webcast, but few racing series can afford that and fewer are the revenue generators that networks will pay to broadcast. The success of the day after broadcast on ABC or ESPN2 will be measured in advertising dollars and new sponsor deals.
Sebring always attracts large crowds. It is truly the jewel of North American sports car racing. Petit-Le Mans’ popularity continues to grow, largely due to the strong manufacturer participation it has enjoyed the last few years. The fledgling ILMC is a positive for both these races audience and sponsors, but it may hurt the non ILMC-ALMS events, pulling participants and sponsors. It is an issue that European Le Mans Series organizers are now wrestling with. The Long Beach grid will be smaller and the depth of competition shallower in each category than at Sebring, especially in the LMP1 and LMP2 class.
“Scott Atherton is staking the series growth on an instant communication, mobile smart device, pad toting generation that embraces this medium.”
Many teams are struggling and the dollars are harder to find to field one, much less a two car team. If the front runners are not immune, think what this mean for the smaller teams? Atherton wasn’t about to repeat the IRL (now IndyCar™) Versus™ TV debacle. The ABC package, with ESPN2 and ESPN3.com, is a good deal in that gives the ALMS a broader reach to attract a new and larger audience. The concept is not new. A broader audience means current sponsors dig deeper in their pockets and new ones come on board. Revenues go up and the series grows and gets better. Reaching and keeping a broader audience is the only means to sustain the series and maintain the level of racing the ALMS is recognized for.
It is a huge gamble with no guarantee of success, but the status quo was not working. The ALMS is faced with a multitude of challenges. Reassuring their existing fans and participants the quality and potential of the new package is worth the teething pain should be at the top of their list, but it may end up being the least of their problem if they don’t get the content issues and streaming infrastructure righted. Without question mistakes were made. And without question, because this was Sebring they were magnified. I’m not so sure the ALMS were prepared for the echo affect of the criticism. In the instant world, the very medium the ALMS is embracing can go (insert your own cliché if you please) viral on you in a blink. When the green flag dropped two races started; the 12 Hours of Sebring and 12 Hours of tweets, texts and Facebook post. The latter continues well after the race was finished.
Scott Atherton is staking the series growth on an instant communication, mobile smart device, pad toting generation that embraces this medium. It’s a fickle audience that expects instant excellence and has plenty of choices. They won’t give the ALMS many do-over’s to get it right.