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Avoiding iFollow - bullet dodged, or missed opportunity? An exile's opinion

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Have Sunderland dropped a bollock or done the fans a favour in opting out of the EFL’s iFollow streaming service?

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Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Matthew Ashton/Getty Images

It’s worth noting before we delve into this entire discussion that the EFL describe the iFollow service as:

The innovative new service will enable overseas EFL fans to follow their team’s entire 2017/18 season

The EFL has today unveiled iFollow, an innovative digital live streaming and content platform that will revolutionise the way football fans overseas can follow their EFL teams.

iFollow will, for the first time in English football, enable EFL fans based outside the UK and Ireland to watch their team during the regular EFL season.

Essentially, it’s a streaming service that’s only available to fans living outside the UK and Ireland. And even though some of you undoubtedly would be able to acquire those streams via VPN’s and streaming services, the actual initiative is not meant to be available for fans residing in the UK.

If anything it’s the exiles (like me!) who would stand to benefit from the EFL’s new service, but is the club opting out of the service really that big of a deal?

Sunderland v Swansea City - Premier League
Potential views?
Photo by Paul Thomas/Getty Images

It’s a tricky one if truth be told, because although exiles deserve every chance available to watch their club play live, there are still serious question marks hanging over the value for money iFollow offers.

Yesterday the club emailed fans who had asked for information explaining that after examining the iFollow service’s plans in detail, the club had decided to pull out of the potential deal:

We have conducted extensive background work regarding this option being offered by the EFL and have made the decision not to participate in iFollow or any streaming service for the foreseeable future.

The club then went on to list a number of reasons as to why they didn’t choose to participate in the digital streaming service:

There are a number of reasons behind us reaching this conclusion:

- We believe the standard one-camera option will not provide a quality service for supporters.

- Producing a broadcast to the standard for which the club would be happy to charge our supporters (multi-camera, commentary etc) would involve significant costs.

- A significant number of games (those broadcast on TV in the UK and abroad) cannot be streamed under EFL rules, and as such there is no guarantee as to a minimum number of games which could be shown. We would therefore be charging supporters for a product we may not be able to deliver.

- We do not believe from our research that the revenue from subscriptions would make the venture financially viable.

- We have already invested a significant sum in a multi-camera broadcast system for use at the Stadium of Light and are currently planning to broadcast full 90-minute re-runs of home games, delayed in accordance with the league's holdbacks (available from 12 noon GMT the day after the game) for a subsidised fee.

Interesting comments from the club which certainly offer a clear series of issues that perhaps hadn’t been considered before.

General view of the Kassam Stadium
One camera view with no commentary? Hmmm...
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Now don’t get me wrong, the club have dropped a series of digital clangers in the last year or so - I mean wishing Shay Given a happy birthday was pretty ill-considered if truth be told and received rightful stick - however, several of the club’s reasons for not joining the iFollow service seem to be relatively straight forward.

Would fans outside of the UK pay over one-hundred quid in order to see a single camera view of a Sunderland game with no audio and editorial production? It’s a bit steep isn’t it?

I couldn’t really care less if the club thinks that the costs of the service are too much, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to pay all that money for a sub-standard service when the likes of Sky Sports and beIN Sports (or Sling TV who offer beIN channels for $10 a month!) offer relatively comprehensive coverage of the Champo.

Furthermore, those two providers are but two partners of the EFL who have a host of other overseas options as well as a highlights show on Channel 5 (now hosted by the brilliant Colin Murray) as well as other, more controversial, means of acquiring games and highlights.

So essentially it’s a question as to whether you’d be happy to pay over one-hundred quid for what seems like a pretty poor service which won’t be aired when your team’s game is being shown on live TV whether in the UK or outside of it, or not?

As part of your club's new website iFollow will provide overseas fans with the opportunity to live stream up to 46 live league games featuring their club within the regular EFL season. Season passes are now available for the equivalent of £110.

And although the EFL say you could see up to 46 of your team’s games live, in reality you’d miss any that are being shown live elsewhere - including 3 Sunderland games between now and the end of September as well as games away to fellow Championship sides who also opted out of the streaming service, i.e. Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Bristol City, Derby County, Fulham, Hull City, Leeds United, Middlesbrough, QPR, and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Sunderland v Manchester City - Premier League
So, what should fans do then?
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

To me if the iFollow service was significantly cheaper then I’d be disappointed to have missed out on an opportunity to watch a single shot, audio-less game. But for the price being quoted and the amount of games available I’m not that bothered if truth be told.

The club did also say that:

SAFC is continuing to invest in its digital platforms, recognising that this is a vital medium for fans to connect with the club. We will do everything we can to continue to extend our coverage via existing channels moving forward and hope you will understand our reasoning in regards to this.

I might have a look at some of the club’s highlights they’re touting, but in all honesty I think I’ll stick with finding games as I can and then watching highlights from the Channel 5 show somehow.

In fact, I actually listened to quite a few games last season via apps online, and felt a nostalgic sense of fondness for the wireless that brought wonderful memories flooding back to me - so perhaps I’ll go old school this season?

Ultimately, I’m disappointed with the outcome of iFollow, but not with the club.

The EFL are simply offering what looks like an incredibly average service for what to me looks like quite a steep price, and I’m not enthused. Perhaps it’s years of being spoiled in the Premier League with almost unlimited access to games and coverage, but the iFollow service just doesn’t float my boat - at least not for now.