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Why Is Watching Sports on OTT Harder Than Watching on TV?

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It's summer in both Europe and North America, which means soccer—or football, as they say in the rest of the world—is back at center stage.

Nowhere is the return of sports to major stadiums more obvious than the year-delayed UEFA Euro 2020 championship, which, as ESPN's commentators are proud to say during the first few matches "are all being broadcast live on the ESPN app."

Except when, of course, they're not being streamed live in their entirety.

It's been an interesting lesson in frustration, trying to watch the first few matches of what will ultimately be a 51-match championship on the ESPN app, which appears to only be streaming some of the matches in their entirety.

Want to watch an early opening match between Switzerland and Wales? No problem, head to the iOS app that ESPN proudly points to.

You were able to watch the match with no issue at all, in very high quality and including a real-time transcription (via a human transcription service, based on the number of times words were erased and replaced or spelled phonetically—"ee kwalizer" for "equalizer" in an early match was especially amusing).

But if you wanted to watch the full Denmark-Finland match, well that wasn't possible.

The problem here is that the match ran over into the time slot for the Belgium-Russia, and ESPN chose to cut away from the Denmark-Finland match. One moment the stream's showing Denmark and Finland from Copenhagen; suddenly the scene shifts hundreds of miles to the northeast to St Petersburg for the opening of a Belgian win against Russia on Russian soil.

I hear you asking: Doesn't streaming eliminate the need for those cutaways to other programming we got used to from pre-cable television? Yes it does, from a technical standpoint, but let's just say it feels like the decision-making process hasn't caught up with the technological possibilities.

In some ways, it's decisions like this that make the ESPN app feel like it's been given a single encoder/channel dedicated to streaming the UEFA Euro 2020 championship. Why the app, which can have multiple simultaneous "channels" of live sports streaming, would limit itself in much the same way that, say, ABC Sports would have to cut away from a game if the time ran over into the time slot of ABC News Tonight about three decades ago is a bit unfathomable.

Worse still, some of the matches are being shifted to ABC, which means you need to have a second app to watch select "TV-worthy" matches. And others, while not shifted to ABC, aren't available to watch on the ESPN app without a subscription.

Not that the ESPN app will tell you this if you start watching a few minutes into a match, as I tried to do. After attempting four times to watch the France-Germany match in the ESPN app on my iPhone, where I'd watched three other matches without incident over the weekend, I found that I could not,

Clicking on the "watch" button in the app at the 8-minute mark in the match did absolutely nothing. Nor did it work on the Apple TV ESPN app, even after shutting down both my phone and set-top box and trying again.

The iOS ESPN app finally started playing the live stream of France-Germany on that fifth attempt, around the 16-minute mark of the match, but with a warning.

"Your preview will end in 10 minutes," the app stated, as it started to show a countdown timer over the live stream.

It was a poor choice of timing from my end, I guess, as three minutes later Mats Hummels of Germany scored an own goal for France—the first time Germany had ever done so in Euro Cup history—putting France up 1-0 with less twenty minutes of play having taken place.

"We'll see the German psyche in the next ten minutes," the announcer on the ESPN app declared, and my heart sank, as I knew the ESPN app would make sure I'd never make it to that ten-minute mark.

Sure enough, before the 27th minute, the app froze, with a reminder that—should I want to continue watching the rest of the match, at least via the ESPN app—I'd need to register with my TV service provider.

At the point it froze, I grabbed a screenshot of the warning (below) and started writing this article, anticipating I'd never figure out the German psyche. Then a very strange thing happened.

After the app sat for ten minutes with the registration warning I mentioned above, it suddenly sprang to life again with the live stream. And it ran with the live stream all the way to the end of the match.

Can we please get some consistency in live sports streaming? If nothing else, ESPN, let the average consumer know what to expect before matches begin, so they can truly watch all the matches—in their entirety—on the ESPN app.

Because, if we're making it harder than turning on a television to watch live sports, we as an industry need to change the language of streaming. Otherwise, we'll end up explaining to the average consumer why live sports streamed are harder than watching live sports on television, by design.

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