Monday, 15 February 2010

My Internet 2009 Top 5: All kinds of Sports

Boy o boy o boy. Has 2009 been the year where sports has embraced the web and has turned it into it's perfect ally to make it so much more excited - or what?
I'm sure we all have are favourite sports and I haven't had my eye on everything that happened on sports coverage on the web. But the things I saw, I liked very much. I'm sure I missed out on so much more, but here are just 3 examples of how I have enjoyed sports on-line in 2009, and I hope I'll be enjoying it even more in the future thanks to internet.

There are at least 2 things which make sports and the web such great partners.
First there are the numbers and figures which make sports so great. I'm not talking about advanced mathematics, but there are the points in the league, the average per match and the time differences. It might be a boy's thing, or maybe it's just me: it's just so much fun to look at scores, calculate how many points your team are trailing or compare distances. It's even more fun to chat with your friends on what happened 4 years ago and who scored the last 3 points with just 2 seconds on the clock. The numbers tell the tale in such a way that for me it makes it more interesting to see the box-plot of a match or the scorecard, than to read an article on what happened during the match.
And that's where the internet comes in: you can find as good as any scores or stats in no time, doesn't matter if it's from the '97-'98 season or if it's live. You get a quick look at the standings; a nice interactive graph shows the story. It's all there on the web for free, right there for you. It's great to consult: just a few clicks will learn you where this player was 4 years ago and how well he bowled back then. An excellent match, if you ask me: the sports numbers are all there on the web.
The second reason why the web and sports go together so well is sharing: sports, like so much more things in life, are better when shared. The experience of seeing the same event with your friends gives it an extra angle, and feeling that you belong to a club or feel you share a match or a track with your sports idol makes it a more profound experience then ever before. And the web has become instrumental in sharing and living the experiences of sports in recent years beyond any doubt.

This said, let's have a look at my favourite moments.

1. European Basketball and a bit NBA

Maybe you'll call me crazy, but I prefer European basketball to NBA. The reason is that I like a good defence - the NBA has only 2 teams who play defence - and I prefer basketball as a team sport – not as a sport where you have 1 or 2 superstars per team who don't think of playing together with their team-mates. Basketball is of course a numbers game, so as a fan I just have to check the stats during and after every match. I used to watch matches on my TV with my laptop opened on live scores, and more often than not, I looked more at the stats. I admit that some sites on NBA are better at representing these stats – like including a plot of the position in which every shot was taken - but that's because working the numbers in sports has a longer history in the US than in Europe. Today I don't even need my TV any more while watching basketball. My favourite Spanish league is being aired on the internet by Orange, one of the sponsors of the ACB for free. It's just all there, on your screen: coverage, comments, stats. Now how great is that? The only thing maybe missing in ACB360 is the sharing part: you can't (yet?) post comments or join the experience.

2. The great communicator ends third in Le Tour

Even if he didn't win it, Lance Armstrong was the lead rider in the Tour de France. Maybe it's not so much for his comeback, but for the way in which Lance communicates that he became the lead of the play. Armstrong is one of the biggest users on twitter, and this brings your hero (or not) so close to the public, that as a fan you feel so much more part of the Tour. You actually experience with him, day in day out, how he's telling what he does and that helps you to get involved and live the experience. He posts very regularly pictures on twitpic, so you can even see what his day looks like. I remember a picture on his livestrong site of a team briefing before a race in the tour bus. You didn't get to see these things when it was a reporter who stood between you and the sportsmen. This only seems possible when the sportsmen start communicating themselves, directly to the public.
A lot of sites give live updates of events like The Tour: you see regular comments on what's happening in the race and you see a plot of the track live with the live time differences. People can log in to post live comments via Facebook or other social media, so you really get involved in the race without having to watch the live coverage. This is all very great and a big difference with what we had before internet arrived. But once the riders like Armstrong start giving you almost-live coverage of what they're up to, you really get absorbed within the sport and you even feel more pat of it then ever before.

Team meeting Astana

3. Cricket and more cricket.

I am born and I live in a country where cricket doesn't exist. I spent some time living in the UK at one stage of my life, and the combination of too much time and SkyTv made me fall for the sport: without anything else to do, I looked at 5-day Test matches during the day and that made me become a fan.
Following cricket where I live would be as good as impossible if it weren't for internet, and I must say that feeling so involved with the sport is only because the on-line cricket coverage has got it all.
First of all there are the stats: cricket is also a numbers game, and it's all there. BBC website has all scorecards – also the old ones - and extensive live scores. There are several other websites which give you even more detailed stats, with plots, fielding schemes, bowling tracking (hawkeye-style): the whole lot.

The sharing is also there: the bbc websites has a live text for most of the England matches. These involve live updates from the match. Since the sport is rather slow and takes various days in finishing, there is time to involve former players or specialists, you see reactions from people tuning in via SMS or email, there is time for some discussions on the rules, you get a picture from the action every now and then. This is all very engaging: you don't have to go to a cricket ground or have a TV in front of you to see the action. Just with your internet connection you can experience everything what's going on the field, besides the track and in the minds of a lot of spectators just like you. I haven't seen a TV footage for a very long time of cricket but I can say I was sweating as much as everybody else in Cardiff or in South Africa with Onions batting at 11 to save the match. I don't really miss the TV images: thanks to all this internet work, I have been enjoying so much of cricket the past years, and hope to do so.

Footnote: Everybody working in marketing and dealing with the issue of 'engaging' on-line with your clients: you should have a look at what sports has done to pull even more fans on board and engage with them. As a key rule, you should think 'sharing', you should think 'direct and clear communication' - don't think 'banner ads'.

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Thursday, 11 February 2010

The end of Spotify?

Only a few weeks ago I wrote in this blog that Spotify was one of my internet highlights of 2009. Today Warner Music announces that it's retreating from free music streaming services and this might just mean the end of Spotify.

When I first heard the news that Warner will no longer license their music to streaming sites, my first reaction was to have a look at what we will miss if Warner takes off its songs of Spotify. I looked up 'Label:Warner' to see which artist are on Warner's label and can be listened to on Spotify. The first 15 results included Paris Hilton and Van Halen, so I thought: no real harm done – we can do without Warner on free music streaming.
But of course my reasoning is beside the point: The greatness of Spotify is that it has everything and for the service it doesn't make any difference what artists you like. Of course, when I investigated a bit more, I learned that some of my favourite artists are with Warner, and I'm sure R.E.M, Madonna and Prince will be badly missed on streaming sites by a lot of people.

So what does this mean for Spotify? In my opinion - and this is of course very preliminary – I think Spotify is virtually dead. Not that the news of Warner will take of Spotify from the internet as per tomorrow, but I've got a feeling that Spotify will easily slip into yet another forgotten web based music service just like Deezer or MySpace. They had their time and we were big fans of them. We thought they were what the future would look like. And they did give us a good idea of what the future for music in internet would look like and they helped shaping that same future. But now that we're here, they're not around any more. OK, they are still on-line, but when was the last time you discovered a new band on MySpace and how many of your friends still listen to Deezer? The piracy P2P sites have been changing constantly over the years – moving from Napster to Kazaa and on to eMule and BitTorrent. It looks like legal platforms share the same faith.

First the reasons not to panic: Warner did not (yet) say it's going to take off its tracks of Spotify. So there is still a possibility that Warner will keep his music on existing sites, but maybe they will not upload new material, or they can stop working with new platforms.
The thing is: when they do decide to take off their music, it will be a hell of a blow for streaming services. Once you can't find the music you want to hear, you'll start looking for other ways of listening to the music. And most likely people will choose illegal P2P sites to download their music again.
Even if only Warner drops out, it's still one of the 4 majors, so you can roughly estimate that you won't have access to 25% of your favourite tracks.

In their statement, Warner told that free streaming service is 'clearly not positive for the industry'. Said in another way: we don't get enough money out of our catalogue from free streaming.
Free streaming services are funded by advertising: you hear ads in between the music you hear. The business model sounds good, but advertising revenue doesn't add up to a profitable model for the labels. They just receive the royalties for their tracks, and there doesn't seem to be big money in that.
From a business point of view, the free streaming model with advertising is equal to listening to a radio station. The only issue is that when everybody was still listening to the radio, the labels were selling lots of CDs with big profit margins. So in that time, radio was supposed to help them sell records and didn't need to produce a direct profit for the labels. Now that the industry is heavily damaged, the streaming services aren't perceived as help for their sales. The industry sees it as a threat.

I guess Warner will stay on paying streaming services. Spotify and other services offer a premium subscription, in which you pay a monthly fee to have access to the music without the advertising. If the labels get their share of these subscriptions, they'll get a share of a hugely profitable market.
So here's the big question: since I love Spotify so much: would I pay a monthly fee for it to keep it service? I am inclined to say that I wouldn't.
My service would cost me 120€ per year. This is not much compared to the price I used to pay for a CD: I can buy 8 CDs of 15€ with that amount, and this includes the services for one year. Considering this, Spotify Premium is pretty cheap.
But moving from a free service to a paid one is kind of hard after one year free streaming and some more years free and illegal downloading. Ans moving to a paying service should give you a better product. Though in this case, the only change would be not to hear the ads, which is not a big improvement.
It looks like we're used to the fact that we will find our music somewhere for free: we find the video on YouTube, we have P2P downloading. When Spotify arrived, we swapped the lousy interface of P2P for free streaming and the price we paid was listening to advertising. That was acceptable. But now, is the interface worth its money? You also have to consider that the 120€ is streaming only, so you can't put the music on your iPod to listen to it on the metro. The only option is installing it on you mobile, which is still a pretty expensive way to use internet services.

I think it will be the same story like the ones we had before: first a couple of songs are taken off Spotify, then some more, and then a big artist's whole catalogue. We'll get Facebook groups named 'I bet I can find 1.000.000 people who want Madonna in Spotify'. Then you drop out once, because your favourite artist has a new album, and you can't find it streamed. And bit by bit, we'll turn again to P2P, I suppose. I will, if I'm not offered some (free) alternative. And within a year or so, somebody will mention Spotify, and I'll remember I used to like that service but I'll find that I'm not using it any more.