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November 25, 2008 10:27 AM

Watching Football Online: Where There's a Will There's a Way

Last night I had the latest episode witnessing the intersection between technology, sports, and the willingness of content owners to make their content available online.

As I pointed out previously, while the NFL has made a big deal about having some games only available on NFL Network, a special channel only available on cable systems willing to pay for carriage, they have been making that same video available to everyone online for free.

On the flipside, with Monday Night Football now on ESPN if you're like me and don't subscribe to cable you can't watch the game like you used to when it was on broadcast TV, and making matters worse ESPN has not yet decided to make that coverage available online.

A couple weeks ago I decided to take matters into my own hands and start searching for alternative ways to watch MNF online. Unfortunately I had no luck trying out a variety of less-than-legal sites and apps claiming to offer access to ESPN and other TV channels online, due at least in part to my being on a Mac and many of these apps being Windows-only. So I gave up.

But then last night I decided to try one more time. I simply put "watch espn online" into Google, and on the first page of results I got a link to a site called Justin.tv, which allows anyone to stream live video onto the web.

After quickly searching the site I found a page where someone had taken the feed from their cable TV and was streaming it online. The picture wasn't very big, roughly YouTube size, and the quality wasn't as good as NFL.com's webcast, but they were both good enough to warrant watching.

Now, I should say that I don't entirely fault ESPN for not offering live online coverage. In all likelihood they're preventing from doing so because of rights restrictions or prohibitively high licensing costs because we know it can't be a technological limitation that's holding them back since they webcast video all the time on ESPN360.com.

But I think this episode also highlights how ineffective efforts to restrict distribution of content online is. Where there's a will of people wanting to watch video, there will be a way that someone discovers to make it happen. The only way you can stop this is by offering the content people want to consume in a high quality, easy to find and access, legal way; you can't hide it from people.

In fact, all ESPN did by not webcasting the video was limit the audience who could tune in. For example, if you're like me and don't have cable, there was no legal way you could watch at home.

Unfortunately too often in situations like this we focus on the rights of content owners and the misdeeds of anyone infringing upon them. But what's really need is more emphasis on the rights on consumers, and the fact that while I do sympathize with big content owners as we're currently in a state of incredible flux and uncertainty with regards to how to best leverage the Internet as an avenue for distributing content, at the same time the best way to figure these things out is by embracing what's possible.

Because if they're not making their content available online, someone else is going to find a way to do it for them.

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