Will the Football League's iFollow platform usher in a streaming revolution that reaches the Premier League?

Joe Hall
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Camera craze: Football League games will be available to live stream for overseas fans next season (Source: Getty)

We can now watch Hollywood films without ever having to buy a DVD or go to a cinema, listen to music without owning a single CD, and keep up to date with the news without ever stepping into a newsagent.

The advent of smartphones and streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify have revolutionised consumer habits and forced reeling entertainment industries to grapple with the consequence.

By contrast, football has remained relatively immune from such drastic disruption.

Clubs still sell their product and fans still pursue their passion in the same way they did two decades ago: get a ticket to the match; find a pub with it on; buy a pay TV subscription package and consult the TV guide to see if your team is on; or hope to find a shaky, unreliable — and illegal — stream.

From next season, however, fans of English Football League (EFL) clubs will be offered a new platform on which to follow their team.

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Last week the EFL announced it was making it possible for fans to watch every single game not selected by a broadcaster — in other words, the vast majority — live on an online streaming platform called iFollow.

For £110 a season, fans can buy full access to their team’s package and watch every game live.

The only catches are that, due to regulatory and rights issues in the UK, iFollow is currently only available to overseas fans, while 11 of the 72 clubs have not signed up to the platform – including some of the bigger names such as Aston Villa, Queens Park Rangers, Leeds United and Derby County — in order to use their own pre-existing digital structure.

For Football League clubs with fans used to mournfully following their fortunes via forums or stolen Sky Sports News clips uploaded to social media, it still represents a significant liberating of content both for fans to consume and for clubs to drive revenue from.

“There was a general view going back two to three years ago from the leagues and our clubs that we weren’t fully exploiting — either commercially or from a growth perspective — the international opportunity,” EFL marketing director Drew Barrand told City A.M.

“It was clear that we were leaving quite a lot of collateral on the table in terms of the deals that we were doing with our overseas broadcasters. They were taking a package of games that was essentially the same package as you’ll see domestically over here. It left essentially 1,500 games as ‘dark’ and a missed opportunity.

“There is clearly a changing relationship between consumer and content and we needed to respond to that. We’re very mindful of that. It’s not just a sport thing — it’s across all content — and we need to move with the times and give fans what they want.”

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Such a recognition has also been made by stakeholders in American sports who have set up direct-to-consumer streaming services.

US-based basketball fans can watch any game live through the NBA's League Pass product, providing it is not being shown by a local broadcaster, while NHL Center Ice offers a similar service to ice hockey fans.

Yet UK fans hoping for the EFL’s new platform to trigger an overnight revolution in football viewing that would see them able to access something similar may still have a while to wait.

Regulator Ofcom currently restricts any broadcast of any football game being held between 2:45pm and 5:15pm, ruling out nearly all of the games on iFollow.

The Premier League, meanwhile, will be in no rush to dispense with an international broadcast rights model that is increasingly lucrative.

Foreign broadcasters paid a collective £3.2bn for the current cycle of rights, which run until 2019 – a 50 per cent rise from the previous cycle’s £2.2bn.

“Sports is still a driver for Sky and other TV packages,” Daniel Gadher, senior analyst at TV and content research firm Ampere Analysis, told City A.M.

“It’s [over-the-top streaming services] a compliment at the moment. Beyond sport, we’re finding people in the UK and in Europe are taking up multiple services. We’ve seen more cord-cutting in the US but here people are taking on paid-TV packages and adding an over-the-top service for a particular need.

“The international rights are only going up for the Premier League; they’re still a valuable proposition for the league and the clubs. We’re seeing football become more and more popular in the Far East. That’s what they’re going to be focused on.”

For now then, the iFollow platform may just be football dipping its toe in the streaming water.

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