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With the dust settling after D.C. United announced a new broadcast deal that would make viewers pay to watch matches online, many of the club’s most loyal fans are skeptical the club has made the right decision.
That’s different than saying they won’t fork over the money.
While initial reaction to the announcement on social media was overwhelmingly negative, ardent fans of the club City Paper interviewed say they will pay the fee, which runs $5.99 a month for season-ticket holders and supporters-group members, and $8.99 for others who purchase a subscription from rights holders FloSports through the team.
“I think we’re kind of in whatever that second stage of grief is,” says Ryan Keefer, a writer for the D.C. fan blog Black & Red United. “I think that quietly it will probably be more [people who subscribe] than what we would probably expect now.”
What those supporters fear, though, is that the club is wasting valuable momentum and credibility built up since last July, when star forward Wayne Rooney arrived, Audi Field opened, and the team surged to the playoffs.
After years as a relative afterthought, the team became relevant in the greater D.C. sports scene again. And absent fans who were returning could catch all the drama either over the air via the team’s previous partnership with Sinclair Broadcasting, or on national cable broadcasts.
“I’m worried about my dad, or my father-in-law, who would definitely watch games if they were on Comcast or Sinclair where it was before,” says Brian Joyce, a season ticket holder in Section 129 of Audi Field. “And they’re not going to pay the extra for FloSports and navigate the app.”
There’s also concern that, aside from bars that hold dedicated viewing parties for supporters groups, more casual fans won’t find the games on TV at their local watering hole.
But Sam Meyers, a 26-year-old who considers himself one of those more casual fans—likely to attend maybe a game a season—doubts whether many of the younger people who comprise the crowds at Audi Field are ever likely to consume a game that way.
“I’ve never thought, oh I need to be out, and I need to be somewhere where I can see an MLS game,” says Meyers, who is more enthusiastic about attending games in person.
“It’s a fun thing,” he says of seeing live matches at Audi Field. “It’s kind of one of those things, depending on the cost, and what the weather is and all that. It’s not something I’m set on stone in doing, but it’s a fun thing to do.”
Meyers is also a cord-cutter, one of the millions of Americans who consumes all of their TV through online subscription services like Netflix, hulu, Amazon Prime and others. However, there are currently no online sports packages that he feels offer enough value for the money, let alone not a subscription to watch a team he admits he only follows in passing.
Meyer’s response is not unusual, says American University communications professor Margot Susca, whose expertise includes commercial trends in digital media.
“At first, $8.99 a month, you might say that’s not that much,” Susca says. “But if you’re also paying $10 a month for Netflix, $8 a month for hulu, you’re still paying for Comcast because that’s the only way you can get your Internet at home … eventually all of these costs which seem really insignificant right now are going to add up.”
That calculus reinforces supporters’ concern that, while they may be likely to pay for the service, more casual fans will be shut out.
At the same time, some say they recognize the financial side of FloSports’ offer may have been too good to turn down.
Sports Business Daily recently estimated the value of FloSports’ contract at $13 million over four years. For a team that will open a new training facility and launch a minor-league United Soccer League team in Loudoun County later this year, fans understand those funds could be vital.
“I do think that the front office, the business side of the organization, has made some good decisions and improvements since the move to Audi Field,” says Bennett Brasfield, a member of the Screaming Eagles supporters group. “The front office accepting this offer for the broadcast rights, it tells me that they came to the conclusion that it was the best offer. And I’m inclined to take them at their word.”
Then there’s the MLS national TV package, which will still show 13 matches across network and cable television. In terms of percentage of a season, that’s the equivalent of 62 Nationals games, or 33 dates on the Capitals’ or Wizards’ schedule.
“The argument I keep seeing is that it’s going to turn off the casual fan,” says Keefer. “Casual fans are going to get their chance to watch D.C. United before deciding on whether or not they want to spend the $9 to see D.C. play the [New England Revolution] on a Friday night.”
D.C. United has promised there will be far more content—from documentaries to behind-the-scenes features—to make the subscription fee worthwhile for fans. FloSports will begin producing some of that content as soon as the team breaks camp for preseason. And for those on the fence about subscribing, the club will try to partner with FloSports to give fans a sample of what they’re missing.
“We’re going to have some amount of freemium stuff,” says Sam Porter, D.C. United’s senior vice president of business and legal affairs. “We’re going to have some sampling and some stuff that isn’t behind a paywall … where you will be able to get a sense of, ‘OK, this is the kind of stuff they’re doing.’”
Ironically, supporters groups may benefit from the paywall, even if it does limit visibility of the team to the greater D.C. sports scene.
Anyone who pays annual membership dues (available for a small fraction of the price of even a partial season ticket package) to an officially recognized supporters group will be eligible for the $5.99 rate. And those members already have access to single-game ticket purchases through their respective supporters group, usually at a price lower than the general public would pay.
In other words, the subscription discount could sweeten the membership pitch, at least to a select few.
“Why not come join a supporters group, make some money back, and you get to hang out and drink with us before the games?” Brasfield says. “Certainly I don’t think that’s a terribly difficult sell. But I think you’ve probably got to have the interest in watching most of the games to begin with.”