Gary Andrews delves into this year's FA Cup, which kicked off with a pioneering move that offered free football streamed online (for adults only)
When Ascot United were drawn at home in the FA Cup's extra preliminary qualifying round to Wembley FC, their board may have reasonably expected a gate of around 100. That would have been a wild underestimate. After 88 fans watched their midweek Hellenic League draw against Ardley United, a record crowd of 1,149 made their way to the Racecourse Ground.
Those punters weren't the only ones watching the tie. On Facebook 27,000 tuned in to a live stream of Wembley's eventual 2-1 victory, all of whom chose to stay in on a Friday and watch two teams playing five steps below the Football League. That's more than the average attendances of eight Premier League teams. The reason can be summed up in one word: Budweiser. The all-American beer hardly seemed the most natural fit for the FA Cup when the sponsorship was announced in June. Since then, however, the brewer appears to have demonstrated a better understanding of the competition than previous sponsors.
At the ground, fans were offered cheap beer and free burgers, while corporate razzmatazz was kept to a minimum. Online, users had to become a fan of the beer's UK Facebook page (providing they were over 18) then click on a bespoke widget on the page to view the match.
Instead of the usual jerky, slow video, the quality of the stream was high, and commentators Dan Roebuck and Stewart Robson had done plenty of research. There were no patronising asides to second jobs as binmen that often characterise ESPN's and ITV's coverage, while occasional pitchside swearing and one fumbled handover seemed in keeping with the occasion.
But for Budweiser and the FA, Ascot v Wembley was about more than bringing attention to teams in a round of the Cup that would usually attract next to no sponsorship. Viewed as an experiment, the Facebook stream can be seen as a success and several parties will be analysing the data with interest. Facebook has over 700 million members, meaning there is a large captive audience, both in the UK and abroad. Having "Liked" the Budweiser page in order to watch the game, all users will see the company's updates in their Facebook news feeds. The benefits to the brewer's marketing arm are obvious.
Streaming games legally online is not new. All major broadcasters offer online streaming of their live games, while sites like bet365.com have an array of rights to foreign leagues. ITV.com even streamed Wantage Town v Brading Town at the extra preliminary qualifying stage of the competition in 2008. Although ITV did an impressive job, viewing figures were low and costs high, and the extensive coverage was quietly dropped the following season.
With cricket's Indian Premier League signing a deal with YouTube and organisations as diverse as Major League Baseball and film studio Miramax experimenting with Facebook broadcasting, it was only a matter of time before football decided it wanted a piece of the action. The FA and Budweiser have now shown the appetite is there – the viewing figures for Ascot were certainly more than some broadcasters' Europa League streams and, you would suspect, Premier Sport's Conference coverage (although Premier doesn't release any viewing figures).
With ongoing uncertainty over TV rights, not least due to Portsmouth publican Karen Murphy's case against the Premier League, leagues and clubs are already having to plan for the possibility of a different media world. Facebook itself has ambitions to grow into a major broadcasting player. Although the cost may be prohibitive for individual clubs below the Championship to produce their own broadcasts (at least of the same quality as Budweiser's), it wouldn't be unexpected if the Conference, or sponsors Blue Square Bet, offer live streaming via Facebook when their current deal with Premier expires, if the sums add up.
However, unless Budweiser does further matches, it's difficult to tell if the figures were down to a one-off novelty factor or a wider desire to watch grassroots football. But a large portion of younger fans were unable to access the beer's Facebook page due to the age restrictions, meaning the numbers could be even higher if the brewer can find a way around this.
In the short term, it's hard to criticise Budweiser and the FA too much, as they pitched their initial stream perfectly. In the longer term, it remains to be seen if Facebook viewing can be sustained and, if it can, exactly what kind of broadcasting monster it may spawn.
From WSC 296 October 2011