For some Kansas State football fans, the most frustrating part of their team’s 26-13 loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday at Boone Pickens Stadium had little to do with the game itself.
Upset as they were that the Wildcats lost for the first time under new coach Chris Klieman, their emotions ran much hotter about the subscription-only streaming network that broadcast the contest — ESPN+.
After paying $5 to view the game online, their complaints ranged from blurry picture quality to poor camera angles and unprepared announcers ... when they could watch the action. ESPN+ was slow to return to the game when it resumed following a lightning delay, and viewers missed the final minutes of the second quarter. They stared at the words “technical difficulties” while Skylar Thompson hit Sammy Wheeler for a 39-yard pass up the right sideline and the Wildcats scored their first points on a field goal from Blake Lynch.
“Those things just wouldn’t happen if the game was on ESPN or ESPN2,” K-State athletic director Gene Taylor said. “We were told any conference game on ESPN+ would be produced at that level and it clearly wasn’t at that level. We do a better production job when we do games in house than they did at Oklahoma State.”
The Big 12 and ESPN+ blew their chance to make a good first impression at the mainstream level.
ESPN explained some of the issues in a statement to The Wichita Eagle.
It read: “During Saturday’s Kansas State at Oklahoma State game, our production encountered issues that affected the viewing experience of our fans during brief portions of the game. We apologize for the problems. The issues were offsite routing and transmission issues, as well as lightning in the Stillwater area, and were not related to our Big 12 Now on ESPN+ platform. We are working to ensure these isolated issues do not happen again.”
Still, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is preaching patience with anyone looking to cancel their $5 monthly subscription because of those hiccups.
“I am very enthusiastic about it,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t mean to be flippant about change. I realize it is difficult. But we really feel that it is going to be excellent for our schools and ultimately excellent for our fans, as well.”
Streaming games on ESPN+ instead of broadcasting them on traditional cable or over-the-air TV is a new practice for the Big 12.
The conference announced several months ago that it was starting its own conference-wide streaming network (called Big 12 Now) and that a large chunk of games and original programming would be available on it. But some glossed over the details when it was assumed only a small number of football and men’s basketball games would appear there.
The Big 12 originally sold ESPN+ as a place to stream a handful of football games (one home game per participating school) and nonconference men’s basketball games. But both KU and K-State have already played two football games on the platform. And the Wildcats are scheduled to play 13 basketball games on ESPN+, while the Jayhawks will make eight appearances online.
Like it or not, the only way for KU and K-State fans to watch every game their favorite teams play now involves ESPN+.
How did the Big 12 get here? The journey began when Bowlsby realized a traditional network wasn’t in the cards.
With only 35 million people located within the conference’s footprint — compared to 91 million for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which recently launched its own cable network through ESPN — he says “the numbers just don’t work.” So he began searching for an alternate platform at about the time the conference negotiated TV rights for the return of its football championship game.
A streaming network and a partnership with ESPN+ seemed like the best option for the Big 12.
There would be no carriage fights with cable and satellite companies that most other conference networks are currently experiencing, programming would be easy to watch and it would all theoretically be available to anyone with an Internet connection. He subscribed with “four clicks of a mouse.”
“This is about getting more exposure for our institutions and conference, not less,” Bowlsby said. “We recognize it require some changes in viewing habits but we think those changes are consistent with the direction that technology and tomorrow’s viewing are headed.”
In its first year, the Big 12 asked four schools (Baylor, KU, K-State, Oklahoma State) to begin showing home games on ESPN+. Next year, four more schools (Iowa State, TCU, Texas Tech, West Virginia) will join them. Oklahoma and Texas will also play games on ESPN+, but not to the same degree until their individual agreements for third-tier rights expire.
Bowlsby said all 10 conference schools voted to begin streaming games on ESPN+. It isn’t a money-maker at the moment, but Bowlsby thinks that will change.
“We expect we will profit from it,” Bowlsby said. “That is one of the ways our conference has to keep pace. We sent almost $40 million per school to each of our members last year. In order to keep up and give them the tools to compete nationally we have to constantly look for ways to optimize our revenue.”
Another positive: Big 12 schools dictate when they play games on ESPN+.
Bowlsby hopes playing games on ESPN+ will help the Big 12 most when the conference begins negotiating new TV deals. The Big 12 will continue to play its biggest games on Fox and ESPN networks through 2025. After that? Who knows.
“This is the first time we have had all of our properties aligned,” Bowlsby said. “We think we are on the front side of technology. It’s cutting edge and, frankly, by the time we renegotiate our tier-one deals, I expect that digital distribution and the platforms that go with it will be a big part of that strategy and a very valuable part of that strategy.”
Fixing the problem
That’s all well and good, but long-term visions won’t do much to quell the frustration levels of K-State fans that are displeased with the production quality of online games.
Taylor said he received dozens of emails from upset fans about the K-State/OSU stream and devoted a staff meeting to its issues Monday morning. When it was over, he put together a list of issues from the game and sent them to Bowlsby.
According to Taylor, the complaints included the following:
- No yellow line to digitally indicate the first-down marker.
- Blurry picture.
- Unprepared announcing team that failed to promote K-State, Oklahoma State or the Big 12.
- Fewer replays than traditional TV broadcasts.
- Poor camera angles.
- Sideline reporter displayed the Big 12 Now and ESPN+ logos upside down on his microphone during an in-game interview with Klieman.
- Technical difficulties during the game.
The ESPN+ team was also caught criticizing the crowd at the KU/West Virginia game last week when they didn’t realize their microphones were on.
Taylor said he was surprised by all the issues, because he has never experienced them while watching other events on ESPN+.
“If this is our platform and they want people to buy it,” Taylor said, “and they want to drive our fans to it, it has got to get better.”
The ironic part about those problems, Bowlsby said, is that the Big 12 asked ESPN to handle the production at football games in hopes of getting the best stream possible. Schools handle the production for non-revenue games.
ESPN agreed to treat Oklahoma State’s win over K-State as the game of the day on cable.
“I don’t have an answer for you as to why that would be,” Bowlsby said, “probably something was malfunctioning, because the production is exactly the same as they are doing on every other game. At least it’s supposed to be.”
ESPN is contractually allowed to stream any Big 12 football game it desires on ESPN+, Bowlsby said, but K-State fans can rest easy knowing the Wildcats will be on traditional TV until basketball season.
Taylor said the Big 12 has assured K-State its remaining eight football games will not be on ESPN+.
The Big 12 is scheduled to hold meetings with its athletic directors next week, and Taylor expects ESPN+ to be a main topic of conversation. He said ESPN executives are supposed to be on hand to hear any and all concerns.
Taylor will have much to say.
“We expect something different,” he said. “That is what we bought into and they need to uphold their part of the bargain. If they go back and really review the Oklahoma State production there is no way they can say it was done at the level we expect. They are going to have to fix it.”