Thursday, October 26, 2006

Free Online Video as a Means of Alternative Sports Promotion?

In the past, sports leagues have demanded that their video footage appear exclusively on their web sites or on licensed broadcast partners. All videos needed the express written consent of the sports league to copy, redistribute, or rebroadcast any of these videos. This was done to protect the image of the league brand. Today, however, many major American sports leagues are “struggling to understand the role of online video where fans can watch their copyrighted video clips” on other Web sites, according to Greg Johnson of the L.A. TIMES.

With the rapid growth of web video upload websites, such as YouTube, unauthorized sports video clips are available to the masses with the click of a mouse. Sports fans upload thousands of sports videos without the official permission of the sports leagues and make these videos available to other fans. When learning of this, it immediately comes to mind that professional sports leagues would have a huge problem with their clips being used without their consent. This definitely is the case with some sports leagues, such as the NBA, which regularly requests for video upload websites to remove footage that violates their copyright agreements.

Major League Baseball has taken a very firm stance on this, as they have made it unambiguous that its baseball “footage shouldn’t play anywhere other than MLB.com and its affiliated club websites”. While YouTube’s search engine does identify almost 1,000 MLB videos, very few include game footage from licensed broadcasts.

Following MLB’s lead, the NFL has also taken a firm stance on this. NFL Dir of Corporate Communications Brian McCarthy said that the league is “taking ‘aggressive’ steps to ensure its ‘long-standing policy’ of protecting its content.” The NFL “uses an in-house legal counsel and an outside law firm to police Internet portals,” but still. YouTube and other sites “still have plenty of NFL game videos in their digital vaults.”

While most of America’s major professional sports leagues have strongly opposed video upload websites using their authorized, copyrighted content, the National Hockey League has done the opposite. Coming off a strong season after their 2004-2005 lockout year, the NHL has been exploring alternative means of marketing their sport to the average sports fan. Staying true to this alternative marketing philosophy, the NHL has shied away from “down too hard on hockey fans” that upload NHL videos onto web sites such as YouTube. While the league has requested that YouTube take down long action videos, the site still presents short, highlight reel type video highlights. The NHL has embraced video upload websites as a means from alternative promotion of their sport. NHL Exec VP/Media Doug Perlman said, “We spend millions of dollars to stage the games, we created what’s a very valuable intellectual property. We have a young, tech-savvy fan base. We know they’re interacting with our sport very differently than in the past ... which makes it very important for us to strike the right balance” (the Sports Business Daily 10/23/06).

While many sports leagues are putting forth time and energy in an attempt to regulate this new media, the NHL has accepted its presence in the marketplace and has subtly incorporated it into its new marketing strategy. The NHL knows that this free promotion can only help their league gain the attention of casual sports fans, while also offering an alternative means for reaching these people. Sure, one can argue the NHL may be more accepting of these websites due to its current situation in the sports marketplace. With TV ratings at an all-time low in America, and with a whole season lost to a labor dispute, the NHL may be a little desperate. Of course, the NFL and MLB do not have these types of issues, so they offer more resistance to the idea of the public using and sharing their copyrighted material.

However, the NHL’s acceptance of new media could help them rebound from their lockout as they strive to build a new base of young fans. By regulating their content on these websites, the NFL and MLB can guarantee themselves that they are shutting out a certain portion of the public that could possibly take a liking to their sport. On the flipside, the NHL realizes that these websites are giving their league a new opportunity to reach potential new fans, so the NHL embraces the sites. It will be interesting to see if the sports leagues unite in their disapproval of their property being misused on these video upload websites, just as leading music artists banded together to voice their disapproval over Napster and other music-sharing websites. With YouTube recently being acquired by Google, its my belief that we will see more regulation in the near future.

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