A few weeks ago, the US Federal government shutdown several domains providing illegal streaming video of copyrighted content. Unlike Megaupload.com, these sites were focusing mostly on NFL games. The article here summarizes what happened.

The operation was code named “Operation Fake Sweep”. My first point to the government would be to fire the person who created the code name with the double meaning. Or maybe.. there is some hidden truth in that choice, since one of the sites targeted (FirstRowSports.com) is now relocated to FirstRowSports.eu, outside of US Jurisdiction. If anyone wanted an example of the ineffectiveness in the recently defeated SOPA bill, there it is. So “Fake Sweep” has a somewhat prophetic content, whether the government intended it or not.

But there is a bigger picture here which should not be missed. There are similarities to Napster and First Row Sports (and similar sites) that facilitated this type of media sharing. Was it illegal what they were doing: yes. Would they exist if there was no viable market to fulfill: no. If there were no viable market being addressed, it would take only simple economics to shut them down instead of a massive federal effort.

It is important to remember that the RIAA, the legal protection arm of the recording industry, held militantly firm to no downloading of music, even when paid for. Their resistance was just laughable, because their pure negative attitude of digital media was never balanced with a reasonable effort to establish a proper channel for purchasing and downloading music. While Napster allowed sharing to an extreme, the extraordinary popularity of the site was never seen as an opportunity by the RIAA that there was an unmet need in the marketplace. And even if they did, their legacy thinking of media in a broadcast and mass distribution sense never wanted to adapt to the new world of the internet.

It was Apple who first successfully distributed paid music electronically, in their online store. Had Napster never been such a successful site, the RIAA would never have had any motivation to listen to Apple or any other vendor trying to make digital downloads a viable distribution channel.

FirstRowSports.com was very popular, because of the number of relocated NFL fans in the US and the world, who would love to watch their home teams every Sunday. (An interesting side-note: ESPN has a “30 for 30” special called “Steeler Nation” which is an excellent explanation of this phenomenon–and it is not limited to just the Steelers). While living near the city where your favorite team plays, it is easy to get a ticket to the stadium, or usually locate a station in town broadcasting the away game. Because of broadcast restrictions and practices, and other limitations including exclusive deals, a Ravens fan who relocated to Florida has a hard time watching the Ravens’ home game. A Cardinals fan in Minnesota has the same problem watching his team, etc.

The NFL has a wonderful service called NFL Sunday ticket. It has a $200 price tag per season, but in my opinion it is well worth the price for access to every game being played on Sunday. You get to watch all of the games being played–especially your home-town team. I would love to order it, except… it can only be purchased as part of DirectTV. And I will NOT install DirecTV for any number of personal and technical reasons. Cable is the proper solution for my hosuehold, enticing offers and services not withstanding.

The NFL has options for streaming audio of their games for a monthly fee. Not only does that fee over a season add up to over half of an NFL Sunday ticket price, why would I buy it? First it has no video. Second, and more importantly, I can easily locate an AM/FM station online if I want just audio, and listen to their broadcast of the game on an audio stream from that stations web site. Every radio station has one now.

If the NFL made their Sunday Ticket package available over live streaming, I am sure they would not be leaving so much money on the table and sell dramatically more Sunday Ticket packages to fans. The shear number of sites the government shutdown (over 300) should be a warning to the NFL of how much money it is pissing away by trying to make exclusive deals with distributors like DirecTV.

And so the NFL is now facing the same “infringement” as the RIAA did, but has the benefit of hindsight if it chooses to avoid RIAA’s mistake. Hopefully, they will see this government shutdown as their opportunity to move NFL Sunday Ticket into a non-exclusive distribution channel and provide the video streaming themselves. Or they can make the mistake of limiting the distribution to non-streaming, archaic models of distribution.. just like the RIAA did by trying to force music media distribution as CD’s.

So to the business managers at the National Football League: Whenever you are ready to add the NFL Sunday Ticket programming into a streaming media service, my payment is waiting for you.