The NFL is losing viewers in Canada, but not for the reasons you might think.
It's not because people are commendably boycotting in the name of civil rights, or even walking away to push over the strawman du jour that is "not respecting the military."
Rather, some football fans in the Great White North literally cannot watch the games.
Prior to this season, the NFL made a surprising deal with UK-based streaming service DAZN (pronounced "da zone") to become the exclusive provider of a full-season viewing package. In previous years, fans had the option of ordering NFL Sunday Ticket, a cable package which aired every NFL game from every market live, or the NFL Game Pass app and web interface. Today, if you want to watch the NFL at home in Canada, you can either catch what happens to be airing in your market on American networks CBS, NBC or FOX, whichever games Canadian station TSN decides to air on its five channels, or subscribe to DAZN.
In some circles, the announcement was met with great optimism. For cord-cutters or streaming-heavy media consumers, it put them ahead of the curve, a sign that the media industry was finally catering to them. But even for those who leaned toward regular cable, the price ($20 per month, $150 for the entire season) was so much less expensive than NFL Sunday Ticket (roughly $250 per season) or Game Pass that it seemed worth it even if it required a change of habit.
But for many viewers, things haven't worked out the way they'd hoped.
In the Week 1 opening Thursday night game between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, some users complained about a lack of a commentary track, extreme lag times, and much more. Once the Sunday games rolled around, more issues with the streams did, too. Users reported games being a full quarter behind, the picture appearing vertically rather than horizontally, or simply not loading whatsoever. Even the cord-cutters and those without the means for a cable subscription, those who were most excited about the DAZN rollout, were disappointed with what was—or wasn't—on their screens. The first week was nothing short of an utter disaster for DAZN.
It led the company to issue an apology statement to its customers, acknowledging that it had dropped the ball and was committed to fixing the problems.
DAZN then went on to give all customers a $20 refund for the first month of the season, but similar complaints continued to mount online. Sean Meade of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, decided to aggregate all of the complaints and lead the charge against the company, launching a Twitter handle @DAZNSucks, an account which has already collected more than 1,000 followers.
The account has been busy, as the complaints continue to roll in. An Eagles fan missed the insane 61-yard game-winning field goal in Week 3, a Steelers fan was kept waiting for 45 seconds while they waited for the outcome of a Ben Roethlisberger endzone attempt, and a Panthers fan watched in horror as the commentary track was modulated into a haunting echo. One scroll through Meade's Twitter feed reveals a litany of technical errors reported by users across the country.
We reached out to DAZN numerous times over a two-week period but were unsuccessful getting a company representative to discuss the issues.
"I had my doubts during preseason. When I heard the NFL took away Sunday Ticket from cable subscribers and gave it to DAZN, I was initially skeptical, but I had an open mind," Meade told me. "Then, in the first quarter of the Patriots-Chiefs, there was no sound whatsoever. And also when the game was going on, if you were on DAZN and you were on cable, DAZN stream was about a minute or two minutes behind, which if you're a fantasy football player is a huge deal. Your scores update on your fantasy football app before the plays actually happen on the television."
It is true that in almost all cases, over-the-top streaming outlets will be slightly behind satellite and digital airings of the same program. Even on MLB.TV, Major League Baseball's much lauded and copied streaming app, plays will often occur seconds after users are notified of said play on their MLB At Bat app.
Unfortunately, as Meade points out, fantasy participation and live in-game betting is much more prevalent amongst football fans. If you're an MLB.TV user and you just want to watch Detroit Tigers games, it might not be as big of a deal if the stream is 15 seconds behind. In the fantasy football world, however, every single play is important the second it happens, leading to more frustration from DAZN consumers. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, 73 percent of fantasy players overall list football as their preferred fantasy sport. Although the average age of fantasy players is just 37, it skews much lower than the average age of football viewers, which in 2016 was 50, according to a study by the Sports Business Journal.
Meade has become the voice for a demographic lost by the NFL in its switch to an entirely digital platform in Canada. In general terms, they're young enough to play fantasy, but old enough to prefer standard cable.
"I stream Netflix, Google Play movies. I don't pirate anything. I don't find illegal streams, I pay for the content I want to consume," Meade said. "I never wanted to stream my football. I was very happy with my cable package, and now it's broken.
"I can't watch football the way I used to, and it sucks."
Realistically, that DAZN isn't a cable company isn't DAZN's problem—it's the league's. The streaming company rightfully sought out a massive property and won the bid to own it exclusively for the next five years. The company does allow for NFL Sunday Ticket to be available to commercial establishments, however there have been reports of sports bars in the Toronto region simply hooking up an HDMI cable to a device and firing up DAZN for customers wanting to watch games not available on network cable or TSN.
Despite some complaints about response time to technical issues, DAZN has gone to rather extreme lengths to try to put out the fire. The refunds are one thing, but this past Sunday, a DAZN representative from the UK actually went to Meade's house in British Columbia with chips and candy to watch a game and see the issues firsthand. Rogers may have a heavily staffed customer service department, but nobody from the company will be bringing Pringles and a 2-litre bottle of soda over to your place to watch the Giants game and troubleshoot.
This isn't the first time the company has kicked down the door and scooped up major rights deals in big markets, either. DAZN also owns the rights to monster properties in other countries, such as the NBA in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and MLB in the same countries, as well as Japan.
The DAZN model would seem to have potential. It marketed itself in Canada as "The Netflix of Sports," and even with NFL football, Serie A soccer, tennis, and KHL hockey, it's still tremendous value at $20 a month. By comparison, NFL Game Pass in the United States is $99 annually, but games are only available for viewing hours after they occur, and never live. DAZN also includes NFL Red Zone, which previously came with a $50 price tag to Canadians. With some technical solutions and additions, such as the condensed game availability and archival footage both MLB.TV and NHL Gamecenter provide, it could be one of the best streaming deals in sports.
The NFL, however, does have to answer to a key demographic. The median aged viewer of NFL programming is likely a homeowner, and as such, has the expendable income to spring for cable, which 75 percent of people do. There's another subsection of the demographic who, unlike Meade, aren't at all technologically inclined, and never will be. Think about it: Your great uncle posted whatever the first bad lighting, low-angle selfie he took on his webcam was and uses it as his Facebook profile picture. Do you really think he's going to learn how to cast the DAZN feed to a smart TV, or hook up a Roku?
For people who long for NFL Sunday Ticket's return in Canada, there is a glimmer of hope. Earlier this year, DAZN decided to partner with Sport1 in Germany to bring MLB to regular cable as well under a pay-per-view/subscription model. Though the terms of DAZN's NFL deal and how that is at odds with TSN's game rights is unknown, there at least exists a recent historical example of a compromise that could be made.
"Although I want to get Sunday Ticket back on cable, I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I want to be constructive here instead of saying 'go away, we don't want you anymore.' I just want my Sunday Ticket back, but if that's not going to be possible, let's do something constructive to make this better," Meade said.
Until then, as they say, you can't change horses in midstream.