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Massive Report Survey: Time Warner Cable deal cuts Crew's TV reach

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Investigation into the TV watching habits of Columbus Crew fans finds that many do not have Time Warner Cable and cannot currently watch Crew games at home. How risky of a deal was this for the Crew?

Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

When the Crew announced last week that Time Warner Cable Sports Channel (TWCSC) would be their exclusive new home, and with that new home came a 75-mile blackout radius for all other cable providers, MLS Live or MLS Direct Kick, they fiddled with a certain principle that most of us hold dear: freedom of choice. Where fans may be accustomed to limited "official" options for food or drink at sporting events, being told which cable provider to select in their homes is a new frontier. While (part of ) Crew nation got a brief, two-hour reprieve Saturday night when Columbus dismantled bitter rival DC United, the fact is that right now there are thousands of angry and hurt Crew fans.

Crew President Mark McCullers has been the main source of information on this topic so far. He was quoted in the announcement on Thursday, conducted an in-house Q&A on Friday, wrote an open letter on Saturday, and has been responding to fans on social media and even in person at RFK stadium. In Friday's Q&A, he stated that Time Warner Cable (TWC), "...cover(s) 90% of the market and they already service more than 70 percent of the market with existing customers." To me, that sounded like he was saying that TWC had either a 63% or a 70% share of the Columbus market. That surprised me; it felt too high. It got me thinking to myself, "Self, I wonder what the Massive Report's viewer/reader demographics are?" I'd never asked, and I'm glad I did. Without further ado, here are the questions, results and my own analysis of a survey I conducted over the weekend.

Survey Summary and Respondents Profile:

Total surveyed as of press time (11:30pm Sunday night) 255


Respondents that live within 75 miles of Columbus 82%
Respondents that aren't sure if they're inside or outside 75 mile radius 2%
Respondents that live more than 75 miles from Columbus 16%

Probably the biggest mistake that you can make when reading survey results is to assume things about or completely ignore the population set. With this in mind, I realize that folks who fill out online surveys about the Crew do not comprise the entirety of the Columbus television market. This survey is also subject to Voluntary Response Bias, since my survey pool was self-selected. That said, I'm sure that this population set interests both the Massive Report readership and the Columbus Crew themselves.

As you read above, 82 percent of the survey respondents are in the Columbus area, and 16% are not. For the other 2%, March 6th will be the day that they remember getting on Google maps and figuring out if they were more or less than the negotiated 75-mile blackout radius. The drama!

Which of the following describe your home TV services?
Cable 63%
Streaming via Internet 28%
Satellite 21%
Antenna 11%

First off, message to you math nerds... I smell you. Yes, the percentages sum to over 100. That's because I allowed for multiple answers to be selected here. I, for instance, am both antenna and streaming via internet.

Cable was the most popular answer, at 63%. At 28%, the fast-growing internet streamers is already significantly more than satellite users. This is significant, as MLS Live is a potential outlet for folks to watch the Crew. But if only 63% of people even have cable, then only some subset of 63% could have TWC specifically. Moving on...

Please describe your home TV provider:
Time Warner Cable 25%
AT&T U-verse 24%
DirecTV 19%
Wide Open West (WOW) 15%
Internet Only (cord-cutters) 14%

Holy crap. These answers shocked me. Whatever figure has been communicated as TWC's viewership share in Columbus was nothing close to 25%. It ain't the same cluckin' ballpark. It ain't the same league. It ain't even the same cluckin' sport.

Now, this is important: I'm not a pro survey-giver. But this is true: 255 people took this survey, and unless a huge chunk of them made a TWC service call by Saturday afternoon, 75% of them were blacked out of the Crew's opening match on Saturday. Ouch.

(Note to WOW subscribers: It stands for Wide Open West. Many of you evidently didn't know that!)

Do you currently have TWC Sports Net in your home?

I had to throw this question out on account of me getting the *station name* wrong. Yeah, that's my oopsie. The Crew are actually on TWC Sports Channel, which is on the standard package in either standard definition or HD. Unless a TWC user has the very most basic cable package, he/she would get TWCSC. To my defense... Really, TWC?? You named one channel Sports Net and another Sports Channel? Next up: TWC Sports Center.

Do you currently have Fox Sports Ohio in your home?
Yes 83%
No 17%

Don't be surprised at how high 83% is; if you would have added up all the cable providers above, plus DirecTV, you get about the same number. Only cord-cutters don't get Fox Sports Ohio. Brief recap: TWCSC - 25%, Fox Sports Ohio - 83%. That means 58% of Columbus fans that could watch games on their couch last year now have a decision to make - Switch cable providers or find something else to do with their time. The Crew is playing a dangerous game, indeed.

Do you subscribe to MLS Live or MLS Direct Kick?
No, neither 65%
Yes, MLS Live 26%
Yes, MLS Direct Kick 8%
Both 1%

Two avenues to getting more Crew games in houses and bars are MLS Live, where fans can watch games online, and MLS Direct Kick, the league's "get all the games that aren't nationally broadcast or blacked out locally" sports package for cable networks and satellite providers.

I was a bit surprised to see such a high rate of MLS Live subscribers, but then again, consider the sample population. Tech-savvy Crew fans are going to be the most likely candidates in the Columbus viewing area to have MLS Live. While it would still have to lift blackout restrictions (more on that below), MLS Live would be a way for any fan with an internet connection to watch games. I happen to be a cord-cutter with internet-only access and Apple TV. If it weren't for the blackout, I could watch Crew games directly through MLS' Apple TV app, a very convenient feature that sends your VGA cords back into your shoe box in the basement.

For the following question, please using this rating system: 4-The Best, 3-Great, 2-Average, 1-The Worst. Please rate the following ways of watching the Columbus Crew:
Attending games in person 3.8
At home on TV via cable 2.9
Going to a bar 2.3
At home on TV via streaming 2.1
On a mobile device 1.5

Ok, so this rating scale wasn't put together well. My labels for the top and bottom probably influenced people unintentionally to select one of the items as a "4" and another as a "1". No worries.

My main interest in this question was to find out if there was a drop-off between how much folks enjoy watching games at home via a cable provider versus watching via MLS Live, streamed. I have personally had issues in the past with the stream being choppy, but that may have been a function of my internet download speed.

Some good news for the Crew FO: their fans absolutely love the game day experience.

Worth the Risk?

The Crew have emphasized content and commitment from TWC as reasons for moving away from Fox Sports Ohio. They point to issues with away game broadcast quality, lack of shoulder programming and FSO's use of alternate channels due to the many teams that FSO handles, including the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians. But this move to a more committed provider comes at a heavy price in the short term: nearly 70% less Columbus viewers. It seems to me that the Crew: 1) Were too proud to accept another deal in which they would play 4th fiddle, and 2) Expected their fans to follow them to TWC.

It's possible that all this backlash is all a bit of a surprise to the front office. If so, it begs the question: Did they independently analyze and predict their viewership drop prior to signing this deal? If not, shame on them for not doing their homework. Pride precedes the fall, and I fear the Crew have made a decision that will negatively impact them for a long time.

What Now?

The Crew have signed with Time Warner Cable. Ink is dry. With that truth firmly in place, there are still routes that would lead to many of the Crew's currently blacked out fans having access to their team again. Let's go through them in an order that goes from the most simple to the most complicated/outlandish.

  1. The majority of Crew fans could change cable providers. Like it or not, this is the easiest solution for most fans. This may not be possible if you live in certain apartment communities, if you're hateblind against TWC or if you're on DirecTV because you enjoy the NFL Sunday Ticket. Most sports bars have DirecTV, but could conceivably add a second cable provider (TWC) if there was enough public outcry (good luck with that).
  2. TWC could remove the blackout for Crew season ticket holders (STHs). I first saw this idea suggested by Justin Bell, and it sounds great in terms of partnership. The Crew could continue to build towards their goal of 10,000 STHs, TWC would pick up immediate goodwill with fans as well as thousands more loyal viewers of their Crew programming. If this was to happen, maybe as an olive branch the Crew could also toss in an MLS Live subscription for STHs?
  3. TWC could remove the blackout for TWC internet subscribers. This would mainly benefit cord-cutters, so I doubt this happens. But maybe seeing the games would entice people like me to come back to cable entirely so that I could get the shoulder/midweek programming? It's always easier to up-sell customers that you already serve than it is to convince new customers to join.
  4. DirecTV could add TWCSC. 19% of respondents were on DirecTV, which is also extremely popular in sports bars (see: NFL Sunday Ticket). However, why would TWC allow their channel to be accessed by a competitor? In the Columbus area, I don't see that happening. However, folks around the country also lose out on access to Crew games that they previously had on Fox Sports Ohio. When I lived in Phoenix, I had no problems finding bars with Fox Sports Ohio, meaning I had no problem finding Crew games. Now, bars would have to be convinced to pick up the MLS Direct Kick package.
  5. The Crew/TWC could offer pay-per-game (or a season pass) access to see Crew games on the Crew's web site. I'm sure there's about 29 reasons why this wouldn't be legal per this contract or that, but how cool would it be to have guaranteed access to every Crew game on your home PC or mobile device? I'd pay $3/game without thinking twice. The Crew and TWC split the cash, everyone's happy. (Hint to advertisers: You're more likely to find me on Google/watching stuff online than TV).
Would any of these solutions be as open as seeing the Crew on Fox Sports Ohio again? No. And would watching on MLS Live be as rewarding for fans as seeing it on their standard cable or Satellite network in the comfort of their own home? Not according to this survey, no. But the Crew front office is listening to fans and has already communicated that they are reviewing their alternatives. I, for one, am very interested to see what next steps are taken.