It’s relatively easy to start a television channel, if you think about it.
Go out and buy some equipment, build studio space somewhere, hire talent and production staff, develop or acquire programming, and maybe sell some ads.
Sure, you’ll spend a lot of money, but other than that, as I said, it’s relatively easy.
The hard part is getting people to watch.
From Comcast’s refusal to carry Premier League Extra Time’s linear TV channels to Gol TV’s collapse toward irrelevance, the American soccer landscape is littered with stories of quality content that’s inaccessible to fans.
At the root of this is a simple but intractable problem: cable and satellite providers’ stranglehold on content distribution. Every consumer knows it, and the providers do too – no matter how often they try to claim that they are the ones held to ransom by the networks.
Every once in a while, a slight gust of fresh air from free market forces moves a few consumers from one provider to another. And it’s true that there are some channels with some content that’s in such demand that they can exert real influence on what the industry called MVPDs: Multi-channel Video Programming Distributors.
But there are a grand total of zero properties on the soccer landscape that has that kind of clout. That’s right, I said zero.
Not the World Cup, the UEFA Champions League, the English Premier League or Liga MX. Certainly not Major League Soccer or the U.S. national teams
Indeed, only a rare few “mainstream” American sports can bend MVPDs to their will: Football, both college and pro; basketball, more the former than the latter; and occasionally baseball, NASCAR and the Olympics. That’s it.
(Another example: Have you ever noticed that a lot of hotels don’t carry NBCSN or Fox Sports 1? Think about all the might their corporate parents have, and they have little to no effect in that realm.)
So here you are, trying to start up an international sports channel and get some attention for it. You manage to assemble a relatively interesting array of properties niche American audiences that you have proven exist: Asian World Cup qualifiers, Japan’s domestic league, content from the club TV channels of Arsenal, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and A.C. Milan.
Then you stir in American flavor with the well-known brand of the New York Cosmos, as they make their way in the North American Soccer League. And you hire respected voices to call games, in J.P. Dellacamera (when he’s not with the Union) and Janusz Michallik of ESPN and Fox.
Finally, to broaden the audience even further, you go beyond soccer: Japanese baseball, Chinese basketball and England’s national cricket team.
What does this get you? A carriage deal with Cablevision, a big cable provider in the New York area; and Dish Network, a well-known national satellite provider.
Then you go out and do something that’s as close to beating the system as is possible in our age: striking a deal with Dish to be part of its package of online streaming sports channels that don’t actually require a pay-TV subscription.
But then you have to negotiate with everybody else: DirecTV, Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon, RCN, Bright House… the list goes on for ages.
Having fun yet?
I didn’t think so.
As you might imagine, I’ve been describing a channel that actually exists. It’s called One World Sports. The Stamford, Conn.,-based network launched last August 1, and has quietly been assembling an impressive portfolio of rights.
I recently talked with Joel Feld, OWS’ senior vice president of production, about its attempts to grow and gain more distribution.
Feld pulled no punches in telling me that it is “very challenging” work to sway the MVPDs, who he called “the middle-man between the programmers or the content providers, and the consumers.”
“We’re out there pounding the bushes for increased distribution, and programming is the secret sauce to the increased distribution world,” he said. “They’re the gate-keepers, and so you have to prove to the gate-keepers that the programming is of value to them, and therefore to the consumer.”
On Tuesday, Feld's bush-pounding effort was rewarded, as One World Sports announced that it has struck a carrriage deal with Verizon. It will be available on the carrier's FiOS TV Extreme and FiOS Ultimate tiers as channel 309, though only in standard definition.
The list of providers that Verizon joins is available here. One World Sports is on various tiers of service across those providers, but I can fill in a particular detail on Dish Network. Beth Sanford, OWS’ head of marketing, told me that the channel is available on that platform as an à la carte option for $5 a month.
As of now, the channel does not stream a feed on its website, but Feld told me he expects streaming to be available “probably some time in mid-summer.” It will be free of charge with authentication through MVPDs that carry the TV channel. And if the platform is ready to launch sooner, it will.
The network does already have a mobile and tablet app with live streaming. It's available through the iTunes and Google Play stores.
If, after reading this story, you think you’d like to get One World Sports on your cable or satellite system, Feld has some simple advice. Fans should, he said, “call their cable operator and demand the services that they want to pay for."
“If you as a consumer want a product," he continued, "and you’re currently paying for something, and you feel there is a product out there that you want and is not being offered to you, then your only avenue, really, is to call your cable operator or your satellite provider and ask them to carry that service for you.”
It is a nice way of trying to curry favor with consumers - and to present the network's cause as being in the distributors' interest.
But Feld's approach is not as benevolent as it might seem.
In theory, the truest way to give the consumer what he or she wants is for every channel to be à la carte. It’s a philosophy that has gained some support in recent years, including from some power-brokers in Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.
In practice, channels aim to be placed on tiers of service that guarantee certain levels of distribution. That also guarantees certain levels of revenue, both from MVPDs and (more importantly) advertisers.
That's what Feld really wants.
“We would like to be on sports tiers,” he said. Such placement would, in many cases, put the channel in the company of the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB Networks.
“We’re looking, obviously, to be as widely-penetrated as we can on systems across the country,” he continued. “For now, as I said, we’re targeting sports tiers, trying to be realistic about where our first step is. If we can get on sports tiers, and we can be widely penetrated through those tiers, we feel like we can offer our product to a significantly wide group of consumers.”
I wrote above about the content that’s in One World Sports’ portfolio. Given the amount of content that’s out there, especially with soccer, I asked Feld if he thinks his network will move for more rights soon.
“If another major property came up from a European soccer league that was a strategic fit, absolutely we would take a very aggressive look at that,” he said, “but it’s not like we’ve got something in a drawer here some place that says we need this much soccer.”
I asked if there were any specific leagues that OWS has its eye on. Feld demurred.
“We all know what the best leagues are that are out there,” he said. “Once those leagues become available, we will absolutely be aggressively looking at those properties.”
I then asked what role he wants the Cosmos to have within the network’s portfolion. Even though the team plays in the second division of the American soccer pyramid, it still has tremendous brand recognition. And of course, there’s a key tie that binds OWS and the Cosmos: network chairman Seamus O’Brien owns the team.
“The Cosmos are a very important part of our overall programming strategy,” he said, and he genuinely meant it. Though he did admit wryly that “it wasn’t a very difficult rights negotiation.”
Although it’s been a long time since the NASL’s glory years, the Cosmos still keep ties with some of their legends. Chief among them, of course, is Brazilian legend Pelé. He still comes to games at Hofstra, including the team’s season opener earlier this month.
“I think there’s a sense of responsibility that the league’s and the Cosmos’ future and success are joined at the hip, in an effort to make it a global league,” Feld said.
As of now, the NASL’s only national distribution package is a game of the week on ESPN3.com. It is a deal that Feld had a role in brokering. So I asked whether OWS might try to start up its own set of leaguewide broadcasts.
“Possibly,” Feld said. “We would look at that just as we would look at any other programming deal. If it makes sense for us to do a game of the week, for instance, then we would look at it.”
He is a backer of the league’s business plan, which is a much more free-market model than Major League Soccer’s single-entity structure.
“Lots of new leagues [and] lots of rebooted leagues have tried to make a go of it, and sometimes their mouths are bigger than their stomachs," he said. “I think the league has been very smart at growing in a progression.”
(I will disclaim here that I am not as much of a fan of the NASL’s business practices as Feld is. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I have said so publicly many times. But that is a topic for addressing separately from this story.)
For as much soccer as OWS broadcasts, Feld emphasized that he does not want the network to be just about soccer.
“We don’t want to be an all-soccer channel by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “We want to be a best-in-class global sports network.”
OWS’ desire to broaden its range explains why it just struck a deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board to show English national team home games on its network through 2017.
On the whole, Feld said, “we’re real happy with where our portfolio is balanced right now.”
The portfolio may be balanced, but the number of people who can consume its contents clearly is not. Fixing that will take time and elbow grease. And despite Feld's appeal to consumers, it's a safe bet that most of you will only be able to watch from the sideline.
If Feld and his network can get more wins like Tuesday's, they seem to have a fighting chance of long-term success.