NHL GameCenter, the web and happy customers

There’s been a great deal of talk today about some proposed American legislation and its impact on the Internet. I don’t really want to add to the clamour. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this 13-minute video primer from Clay Shirky, this Khan Academy video (thanks to Andy for that) or read Wikipedia’s SOPA and PIPA list of questions and answers.

I have been thinking about piracy lately, though, because I’m considering alternatives to cable television. In truth, hockey is the only thing that binds me to Shaw Cable. I’ve been poking around for alternatives to watching or recording Canucks games on our PVR.

The only legal option is NHL GameCenter LIVE (caution, autoplaying video ahead). Back in October, I could pay $169 to watch nearly any game I want on my computer, iPad or iPhone. They reduce the price throughout the year–it’s currently $119. On the face of it, this seems like a satisfactory offer. I’d rather they amortize the pricing based on the exact day I sign up, but it could be worse.

However, the fine print is pretty hostile to the average customer:

  • If you want to cancel your subscription after you sign up, you have five days to do so. After that, you forfeit the entire payment.
  • You only get to watch the first two rounds of the playoffs. It’s not immediately apparent, despite some diligent searching, as to how one watches the subsequent rounds.
  • Because of league agreements with broadcasters, many games are blacked out. The rules around this policy are pretty inscrutable, though I did read that no games are broadcast through GameCenter in the playoffs in Canada, because they’re televised nationally. There are endless complaints from GameCenter customers on social media and online discussion forums about this practice.
  • The reviews of the NHL GameCenter mobile app are not flattering. A typical review in the iTunes store reads “Huge downgrade from the 2010 version. It crashes constantly and it’s way harder to navigate than last years version.”

The NHL seems to be about 60% of the way there to a really great service that enables you to watch all games, live or recorded, over the web.

By the way, there are no current NHL (nor NBA, NFL or MLB) games available through the iTunes store. This seems like an enormous missed opportunity.

Clearly, the NHL has not found its iTunes-esque sweet spot. How do I know this? Because there are a ton of illegal ways to watch NHL games online.

There are streaming sites, usually with multiple options for streams of both the home and away broadcasts for any game, and bittorrent sites. But my favourite example is this grey-market site based in Rotterdam, Netherlands that is a generic clone of NHL GameCenter. They essentially offer the same thing as GameCenter, except with more convenience and at a moderately-lower (a year costs US $99) price point. There are no blackouts, no playoff restrictions and the site seems to be more reliable better than the GameCenter app. In short, this shady Dutch operation out-performs the NHL’s own service.

As is so often the case, when the legal options aren’t satisfactory, illegal alternatives abound. There’s clearly a huge appetite for this kind of on-demand sports content. On my site alone, more than 17,000 people have visited this site alone looking for some variation of “how to watch NHL hockey online”. Not everybody wants the all-you-can-eat package for $169, mind you, but that’s the only legal game in town.

We’ve solved online music. We’re making good progress on television and movies. It looks to me like sports leagues, or at least the NHL, still have a very 20th century attitude towards the web. What’s holding them back?

UPDATE: Coincidentally, I was poking around on my iPad tonight, looking for hockey highlights. None of the CBC, TSN or Sportsnet apps offer video highlights, and the associated sites only offer video highlights in Flash. When I visit NHL.com looking for highlights, I get forwarded to their GameCenter offering. In short, the NHL expects me to have to pay to watch video highlights on my iPad.

Of course, somebody has routed around the bogosity, and hosts a simple site for NHL highlights that runs very smoothly on my iPad.


  1. GameCenter does not require you to pay to get the highlights, at least not on the AppleTV edition. I have been on the fence for streaming the games since being out of market I almost never get to watch my team. The cost has been a barrier.

    Think the biggest missing piece is the single-game purchase. Especially if you are not in the market as the broadcaster.

    Not sure how much the NHL can do, though I wish it was more. But I do love they do have something – compare that with the NFL.

  2. Came over from HN – I went with hockeystreams.com and it’s OK, but sometimes I get ridiculous buffering even on 15mb/s connections. I only find this on the leafs games though, which are basically all I watch.

    I’d assume that the last two rounds are not broadcasted as they are free on CBC? Just so you know, all HNIC games are free on CBC.ca. I don’t know about Vancouver, but RogersonDemand.com streams a TON of leafs games as well for free (for customers, but ways around it).

    Hockey is the only thing I really care about watching as well and I wasn’t sure how it would go not having cable… aside from some buffering, the streams are good. Game center is just too much $$ for me though

  3. I understand why you want streaming.

    But when you’re at home, what’s wrong with Over The Air and an antenna? Biggest bonus is that, unlike cable, your signal isn’t lossy-compressed-decompressed so you get a full HD picture. You may not think it’s much that’s lost (and it isn’t). But, wow, what an impact when you see a never-compressed signal. (Of course, maybe Shaw, unlike Rogers, doesn’t compress/decompress.)

  4. Not sure which cable package you have, but the Personal TV package is only $25.95/mo with Shaw and it includes CBC, TSN & SNet.

    And to answer question about compression, the signal received from the network is what you get in your home – that said, not sure if the networks send out better signal OTA.

  5. I watch OTA via an indoor antenna and the picture is even better uncompressed hd and free too !!!!

  6. That’s a fair review and a very important point… that if the NHL can’t get its act together (and let’s face it… this year has been nothing short of hard evidence supporting this theory)… illegal options will abound.

    I have been a subscriber to NHL GC and to Hockeystreams for 3 years. I’ve supported both for different reasons. i) I want the NHL to recognize the potential for online subscriptions, ii) I want to reward Hockeystreams (and punish NHL) for offering blackout free hockey.

    Why should the NHL force me to pay a middleman like Rogers or Comcast to recieve a license to a copyright, bundled with a bunch of copyrights I care NOTHING about?!?!

    Each year I write an angry missive to NHL at around the time of the playoffs… reminding them about Napster and iTunes and reminding them that if they “do it right” my generation has proven willing to play by the rules. But if they continue to force consumers through ridiculous avenues designed only to maintain cash-flow to a third party and preserve the status quo, we will find a way around it online… to their peril.

    Given their treatment of us all this year, I will no longer renew my GC subscription, and I’m urging any friends who are cutting their cable bill in favor of online streaming to consider Hockeystreams. Hopefully it gets big enough the NHL will finally take notice.

    (and by the way… I live in the US, so CBC.ca is not an option unless I block my IP address. There is no HD antenna option as NBC Sports is only available via cable… only the actual finals were available on regular NBC)

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