A really neat thing about living here in the future is that anything you could possibly want to watch is available to watch on demand. A significantly less neat thing is the hoops that you have to jump through in order to watch those things, which in America only figures to get worse with the government’s plans to roll back net neutrality standards.
Even before whatever happens with the FCC, though, one has to look askance at certain things about the way business is done in this stream-it-all world, because through various rights deals, the Internet already is not as free and open as it might seem. This is obvious to anyone who has been to Iowa, for instance, and wanted to stream a baseball game featuring the Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Royals, Twins, or White Sox, all of whom are blacked out on MLB.tv and the Extra Innings package in the Hawkeye State for reasons that can only be described as “huh?”
But it’s even starker elsewhere.
The Winter Olympics are two and a half months away, which means that this is an exciting time for fans of fringe sports getting ready for their time to shine in Pyeongchang. One sport that should get some attention here is women’s bobsled, where the reigning world champion is Elana Meyers Taylor of the United States, the reigning World Cup champion is Jamie Greubel Poser of the United States, and former Summer Olympics sensation Lolo Jones has made the move from track and field to regularly serve as Meyers Taylor’s brakewoman.
So, let’s say you want to get hyped for the Olympics by watching what amounts to bobsled’s regular season, the World Cup campaign. It kicked off two weeks ago in Lake Placid, with Meyers Taylor finishing three-hundredths of a second behind the sport’s other giant, Kaillie Humphries of Canada, and Greubel Poser in fourth. Two weeks ago in Park City, Utah, it was Greubel Poser on top, followed by Humphries and Meyers Taylor, this time with Jones in the back seat. Last weekend at Whistler, in Canada, it was Humphries who was victorious on her home track, followed by Greubel Poser and Meyers Taylor.
An already strong rivalry between American and Canadian sleds at the top of the women’s bobsled world is only getting better as the Olympics approach, but good luck following it in the United States.
The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation has a robust YouTube page, streaming all the World Cup races with highlights and interview packages cut quickly into their own videos after the live feeds wrap up. The streams are archived, so if you’re not able to watch live, you still can catch the action when it’s convenient to you. Unless, that is, you are in the U.S., in which case the IBSF’s YouTube page is a weird mix of Heat No. 1s and post-race content, with the decisive parts of each race geoblocked.
There is, at least, a simple workaround to this issue, which is to watch those bobsled races on the Olympic Channel, which is free online and is part of many popular streaming packages like PlayStation Vue, so it can be watched on actual televisions.
The problem here is that unlike with most sports streaming services, once the races are over, they might not be available. Heats from Park City were available online for part of Thanksgiving week, but the races from Whistler were nowhere to be found on the Olympic Channel’s site.
Once they’re gone from the Olympic Channel – fair play to them on the live stuff and while they have it available in the archive, they’ve got the rights after all – shouldn’t these races revert back to the IBSF? Who stands to benefit in any way from preventing people who want to watch bobsled from watching bobsled?
The first heat of that Park City race had 2,800 YouTube views as of Tuesday afternoon, four days after it was completed, so it’s not like this particular issue is one that is putting a lot of people in a spot of frustration. But it’s the same principle that makes it confounding when Major League Baseball or the NFL go after people for posting GIFs or video clips of their sports: people are interested in your product, and you are doing everything in your power to keep them from being able to access and enjoy it. In this case, it can’t even be about protecting the rightsholders – the rightsholder is the International Olympic Committee, the rights are no longer even being used, and the world governing body of the sport is unable to effectively promote itself to whatever means it can in the home nation of the world champion and World Cup winner. Even one of the most dramatic moments the sport has had – last season’s gold medal tie at the world championships between two German four-man sleds – remains geoblocked on YouTube in the United States, and absent from the Olympic Channel.
It all makes as much sense as skeleton being part of the bobsled federation instead of headfirst luge being paired with, well, luge. Usually in these situations, you just need to figure out who’s making money off of something for everything to become clear. In this case, there is only money being squandered with a failure to build up interest in a country that is home to a quarter of the IBSF’s season schedule.