Several weeks ago, the American third division league, United Soccer League Professional Division (USL PRO), announced it would broadcast every match to the public for free. Through the YouTube Partner Program, fans can simply log in to their Google or YouTube accounts to view all matches live.
USL president Tim Hold stated:
Online streaming is a vital component of the growth of the league. YouTube eliminates barriers that previously stood between fans and the action on the field. We want fans worldwide to take notice of the high quality of play in USL PRO and see the importance of the league in the North American soccer landscape. YouTube makes this process much easier and we’re thrilled to have this relationship.
Some might say USL PRO is foolish for allowing people to view their product free of charge. From a business standpoint, especially that of businesses of sports leagues, it makes little economic sense to give away the product for free. American second division league, the North American Soccer League (NASL), jumped on the pay-per-view bandwagon, announcing a recent partnership with PERFORM which will stream all NASL matches live in 2014 for a monthly subscription of $4.99. This is certainly an affordable offering for most soccer fans, and is not a large revenue stream for the league. But unlike USL PRO, it is not being offered free of charge.
According to NASL.com:
PERFORM commercializes multimedia sports content across internet-enabled digital platforms, driving revenues through a mix of content distribution, advertising and sponsorship, the development and management of subscription platforms and technology and production. PERFORM owns one of the largest digital sports rights portfolios, including leading U.S. soccer site Goal.com, through contracts covering more than 200 sports and their associated leagues, tournaments and events.
NASL and USL PRO both compete for relevance in America’s soccer market. However, USL PRO’s offer of free live streams of matches will threaten NASL’s market share. According to USL PRO’s press release, YouTube reaches more U.S. adults ages 18-34 than any cable network, approximately 40 percent of all YouTube viewing happens on mobile devices, and more than one billion unique viewers visit YouTube each month.
USL PRO understands their limits as a third division league. Soccer fans would not jump at the opportunity to watch a third division soccer match when the first division league (MLS) attracts better talent, has higher quality play, and is affordable and easily accessible. By not charging a fee for online viewers, USL PRO has offered soccer fans unrestricted access to their product. This will create more exposure for the league as it reaches for a wider audience, and will attract more fans who otherwise might never follow the league.
In another form of entertainment, the music industry, musicians attempt to stay ahead of the curve in technology as well as marketing. The industry constantly fights the battle between illegal pirating of music and making a profit, all without alienating fans. Up and coming artists often elect to give their music away for free in an attempt to gain popularity in the long run, at the expense of a profit in the short term.
USL PRO has chosen a strategy with low risk and low costs. The YouTube Partnership Program is free to use and adds another soccer enterprise to Google’s portfolio alongside KickTV. USL PRO’s partnership with MLS in 2013 allows MLS clubs to create affiliations with USL PRO clubs and loan players to the third tier to increase player development in the U.S. Many fans of MLS will tune in to USL matches on YouTube to see players who are on loan from their favorite MLS club, or to see upcoming players that may eventually make it to the MLS.
As technology grows, it changes and expands the ways which people consume entertainment. Time will tell if USL PRO’s strategy to stream their matches for free will increase viewership and exposure in the short term, in hopes of increasing stability and profit in the long run. NASL would do well to heed the advice printed on the rear view mirrors of most automobiles: objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Perhaps 2014 will be the year that NASL changes the beat of their drum before being surpassed by that advancing image of their third division competitors.