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Summary:

Stuck at work without a TV to watch the World Cup? ESPN3 is one of the sites that streams most of the games live for free – but you may not be able to access any of them if you’re signed up with the wrong ISP.

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Countless World Cup fans are scrambling these days to find options to watch the tournament at work. Many of them end up on the website of ESPN3, which is streaming 54 of the 64 games live in HD with a bitrate of up to 1.8 Mbps.

However, a number of users won’t be able to access ESPN3’s stream at all: The website only shows its programming to customers of affiliated ISPs. Got your Internet through AT&T, Comcast or Cox? Then you’re good to go. Signed up with Earthlink, Sonic.net or Time Warner Cable? Sorry, you’re out of luck (for other options, read our article Where to Watch the World Cup Online and on Your Phone).

ESPN3 VP Damon Phillips told me during a phone conversation yesterday that the site is available to about 70 percent of all broadband households. It’s struck licensing agreements with more than 60 ISPs, which pay ESPN in order to get their customers access to ESPN3’s programming.

It’s not a new model — ESPN3 used to be called ESPN360, and it has been in the business since 2005. And it’s obviously inspired by an even older business model, one that has dominated TV for decades: “We treat this like a TV network,” explained Philips. TV networks ask cable providers for licensing fees, and customers end up paying for various bundles of these licensed channels.

ESPN even renamed its online venture to ESPN3 earlier this year to make it sound more like a traditional TV network. Philips thinks that the World Cup is somewhat of a coming out party for the site, with many users stumbling across it for the first time, or at least for the first time since the name change. “This event has definitely raised awareness,” he said. ESPN3 wants to use this demand to strike more licensing agreements with ISPs, and in fact provides potential would-be users with a form that makes it possible to “Tell (your ISP) what you think” and “Demand live sports online 24/7!”

Some ISPs, however, want to have nothing of it. Dane Jasper, CEO of the Bay Area-based DSL provider Sonic.net, for example, thinks that ESPN3’s approach is all wrong. “I do not believe that the industry should accept a model that attempts to duplicate linear TV on the Internet,” he writes in a blog post today that he shared in advance with us. He continues:

“The Internet should not accept this model. If it were carried to its logical conclusion this model would have every site charging the ISP, who would pass on the costs to all customers, whether they want the content or not. (…) End-users should be empowered to subscribe to the pay services that they themselves choose, rather than being forced to pay for services they may not want.”

Jasper isn’t alone with his criticism. Broadband Reports noted late last year that some smaller ISPs were contemplating lawsuits, and there also some high-profile holdouts. Time Warner Cable and its Roadrunner subsidiary haven’t signed up with ESPN3, and neither has Cablevision. For many, it might be a simple business decision. Customers are unlikely to switch if you’re the only cable ISP in a local market.

A smaller provider like Sonic.net could more easily lose customers to competing DSL providers like AT&T, but Jasper still calls ESPN3’s business model “ridiculous,” adding: “Content creators have an opportunity to reach customers directly, and that’s the path they should take.”

Philips, unsurprisingly, disagreed when I talked about such criticism with him. “We believe that the affiliate model has relevance online,” he told me.

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  1. [...] the world cup in progress, I’ve seen more discussion about ESPN’s “360″ subscription model, (now called “ESPN3“) and [...]

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  2. I am sure ESPN3 is cashing a little more on their end. But I have to agree 100% with Dane Jasper. It is an old mind set.

    Now, I really wonder how many people switched to another ISP to watch the world cup? I am fortunate enough to speak spanish and watch in univision.com free and on any ISP. The understand that they are well supported with advertisement for that even and is probably part of the package when they sell the space. ESPN3 should charge a subscription if they wanted to score some extra cash, es mlb.tv does.


    Javier Perez-Karam
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    1. World Cup Watcher Thursday, June 17, 2010

      WoW! Thanks for the univision turn on!! :) (who needs commentary)

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  3. Weird. I’ve been able to watch it on my Time Warner cable modem service.

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    1. i was too until just now. i watched the france match this morning, went to work, now at home.. nothing. trying to do something about this.

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      1. Yeah. Same here. I was watching matches on time warner without even a hitch, and today… now it’s filtering me out as well.

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  4. I have Verizon Fios Internet and TV. Why can I get nothing at ESPN3.com?? I am interested in the Worldcup in Sth Africa!

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    1. You should get in touch with ESPN3’s customer cervive, and then update us here. I know that for some ISPs, only certain types of access are covered (i.e. only DSL, but not cable, or vice versa).

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  5. [...] World Cup Woes: Why Does't ESPN3 Work With Your ISP?NewTeeVee (blog)Dane Jasper, CEO of the Bay Area-based DSL provider Sonic.net, for example, thinks that ESPN3′s approach is all wrong. “I do not believe that the industry … and more » [...]

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  6. [...] World Cup Woes: Why Does't ESPN3 Work With Your ISP?NewTeeVee (blog)Countless World Cup fans are scrambling these days to find options to watch the tournament at work. …Buzz Out Loud 1250: Sony's special new toy (podcast)CNET (blog) all 3 news articles » [...]

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  7. ESPN3 has been great so far. It failed only once to show a match live.

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  8. What I don’t get is why he is complaining about the service provider paying for it and then passing it down to the customer. He claims this isnt fair when the same thing is going on with our TV channels. I pay for way to many channels I don’t want anything to do with. He needs to pick a side and stick with it. If its not fair for online content why would it be fair for tv content? As you can guess I’m all for a pick and choose cable TV choose, but we all know that will never happen.

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    1. onecallednick Thursday, June 17, 2010

      “As you can guess I’m all for a pick and choose cable TV choose, but we all know that will never happen.”
      The internet is our chance for that. That’s what he’s saying. If we reject this “affiliate model” of charging you for services you may not want or ever use, we’ll get the subscription model by default. And it’ll cost a LOT less. Look at what you get with Netflix for $8.99!
      Netflix is the reason I don’t have cable.
      This is a terrible business model. I hope it dies quietly and leaves the door open for true online programming, not a throwback to the bad old days of cable.

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