Many years back my wife and I made the decision to cut the cord from the major cable companies and rely on the ‘a la carte’ model exclusively for our media needs. For the most part it has been without regret and I love the fact that my kids have grown up in a world mostly free of commercials (they are confused and annoyed by them when they see them at friend’s home). But one of the main sacrifices we had to make (well mostly my wife) was not being able to view NBA games in our home (specifically the Spurs as my wife grew up in San Antonio). Of course, I have been following the progress of the NBA League Pass as it has become more available to non-cable subscribers over the years. So I decided it was time to give it a try and bought a subscription for my wife as a Christmas present this year. As the title suggests, so far I am not impressed.
We bought the broadband package which allows us access to games on computers, tablets and several set top boxes (we have a Roku and were excited to see it on the list). Why smart phones were explicitly excluded is beyond me (except to force you to buy an add-on). Right out of the gate things were not looking good. It wouldn’t work on our Roku (we need a newer model). And the Android tablet app was not compatible with my Android tablet even though it meets the advertised requirement of Android 2.2 or higher. After a brief interchange with support to find out why I was basically told the following:
“Not all devices are compatible. We are trying to add new devices. But if you want to know if a device is supported, try to install it and the app store will tell you”.
So I guess if I want to buy a new tablet I have to run down to the local Best Buy to see if I can install the app before I buy it. Not a great answer.
The next major disappointment was the blackouts. Yes, we knew about them going into it. But we didn’t realize how many games were blacked out. In short, all the good games are blacked out (all nationally televised games as well as local games). It looks like the NBA still considers this a supplemental cable package and not a full-fledged content package that can stand on its own. Looks like the NBA is still being told what to do by the cable providers.
So I resigned to hooking my laptop up to our TV over an HDMI cable to watch our first game. My wife is watching that game now (we wanted to watch one earlier but, surprise, it was blacked out). The connection to the actual TV worked well. However, in a world where YouTube, Hulu and Netflix (to name just the major players) are streaming HD plus content over the internet, the video quality of these games is obviously inferior. Even my wife and kids (who are pretty forgiving of this stuff) have noticed and made comments. I am pretty sure they are using some old Flash streaming codec (like VP6) for their video because the pixelation is extremely bad. And there is all sorts of other compression artifacting going on as well. It’s like watching flash videos from the early 2000’s. They are probably saving money on licensing royalties by doing so. But boy is it bad.
But the bad isn’t ending there. I have never been a fan of getting commercials crammed down my throat after I have paid for premium content (love Netflix, hate Hulu Plus). But even Hulu has figured out how to do it in a way to minimize annoyance and make it work. The NBA has not. My wife started her game during halftime. No problem, we can just rewind it to the beginning and start there. That’s the beauty of streaming video. And it sounded great in theory. But in practice it has not been going well. We reset the stream to the beginning. And it started playing just as intended. Great! However, it only played for about a minute and then jumped right into commercials. When the commercials finished it jumped back to the game, but not where we left of. It started playing somewhere in the second quarter. Now any sports fan knows that this is a cardinal sin in sports etiquette. Seeing scores from a future portion of the game ruins the entire game leading up to that point. So I tried to rush to my laptop to scrub it back to where we left off. But before I can get there, it started playing more commercials. Really? And this time when they ended it jumped us back to half-time. You have to be kidding. You can’t watch a game like this. So I left to vent my frustrations by writing this post. My wife, being more patient that I am when it comes to the Spurs, stayed. But every time I have gone down to check on her, it seems to be playing more commercials. And it never seems to be able to remember where she left off.
And now for the grand finale, or the proverbial tip of the iceberg. She just came up to announce to me that the game stopped streaming 2 minutes before the end with a not near as polite as they hoped it would sound message saying “thank you for watching”. She immediately went to the computer to try to watch the last two minutes, of a game she referred to as a “nail biter”, only to be told she could not play that game because it was in the process of “being archived”. Wow. I am in shock.
Now as a technologist myself I am usually pretty understanding of companies trying to do cutting edge things and generally side with them when they have hiccups along the way. But to me this feels more like gross negligence. They are not trying to anything that has not been solved years ago.
Get it together NBA. Your product, in its current state, is not worth the price you are charging. I am seriously considering trying to get my money back. However my curious side wants to stick it out and see if it gets any better. But one thing is certain, I will definitely not be recommending this service to anyone, anytime soon. It’s sad, because the concept is brilliant. More and more people are moving to the “a la carte” model. I would love to see similar packages from other content providers as well (why do we have a middle man anymore?). But they need to be 100% independent of cable providers and they just need to work (yes that’s one last rip on League Pass).