Sunderland sent out an email this week advertising the early bird pricing for its international, season-long streaming passes.
Ironically, on the same day, the club served up one of the worst streaming performances in the history of the internet.
The game against Bradford on Tuesday looked more like a 1980s arcade game than a live stream, leaving fans guessing at what was happening on the pitch more often than not.
In fairness to the club, it was only a pre-season friendly and the video quality was far from the norm in terms of what international fans – and those watching midweek from the UK, and those of us who ‘move’ to Berlin, Tallinn or Madrid every other weekend – usually experience on game day. However, it does beg the question for fans who regularly stream matches: “What exactly am I paying for?”.
The 8-bit, techno-coloured, acid trip that some of us watched this week isn’t a regular occurrence, but Sunderland’s live streaming has been far from perfect over the last several years.
Between the one-man EFL camera crew, dodgy audio, and lengthy lag times, fans run the risk of remembering more about the quality of the broadcast than the quality on the pitch.
It’s one aspect of the fan experience that should go almost unnoticed as supporters around the world seek to connect with and interact with the club they love. International fans especially rely on resources like the stream, along with fan groups and social media, to have any connection to the club when abroad.
Due to the size of the club, international Sunderland supporters make up a large portion of the club’s following, and deserve a comparable digital experience as domestic fans get in a match-day experience.
Understandably, Sunderland’s time in League One, and the abhorrent asset-stripping under previous ownership, have had a tremendous impact on the overall infrastructure at the club.
And, under the new Kyril Louis-Dreyfus-led regime, infrastructure has been a key point of emphasis as the club at large gets back to the standard that fans expect.
The club must be mindful, however, that the internal streaming service offered to fans has got to be a priority as the club continues to make this push forward. Quality, in all areas, must be pursued, match streaming notwithstanding.
The leap to Championship-level football should certainly have a knock-on effect on the club’s functioning. And SAFC fans will no doubt see this on display in all areas as we dust ourselves off from the filth of League One.
International fans will have more opportunities to see nationally televised games at this level as Sky Sports’ international partners broadcast games via its affiliates, with our opening day match having already been selected as such.
However, not all games will make the national scene. And not all fans will have the ability to watch even when games do.
So what can the club do to ensure that international fans want to buy a season streaming pass and, when they do, it’s money well spent?
An encouraging announcement has already been made on this front as the early-bird pricing advert included a statement that “Multi-camera coverage will also return for the 2022-23 season”.
One main drawback of the stream in the last few years has been the putridity of the lone, pitchside camera angle. Especially for replays, the single-camera perspective highlighted the sub-par streaming service the club has offered.
Multiple cameras are a step in the right direction. The return of Frankie and Danny is also good for the streaming service. Fans seemed to have connected with the broadcasting pair, and having them as “the official voice(s) of the club” is an asset.
By way of improvements, the first thing that comes to mind is the improvement of the SAFSEE mobile app.
The app is the platform that international fans are required to use to access the live stream on mobile devices, and on the whole, it’s very poor.
It has sections for Highlights, Interviews, Academy, and Latest Video uploads and then a separate tab for live match streams.
These features are all fantastic in theory – however, they’re hardly ever updated.
For example, the three most recent videos available for “Highlights” in the app are Gillingham away from October, the Pizza Cup group game against Man United’s academy, and Accrington from 11 September.
The other categories have similarly ancient content; the latest video for “Academy” is the season opener highlight against Fulham and the latest “Interview” is the aforementioned Gillingham game’s presser.
In addition, the app’s live stream function can be a bit moody.
It’s difficult to navigate the options without constantly causing the stream to pause, resulting in the need to restart the app to get back “live”.
This is a huge missed opportunity to give fans a quality, “one-stop-shop” digital experience. Surely it wouldn’t take much investment to upgrade the streaming platform or ensure that all the club’s highlights, academy content, and women’s content were available and up to date within the app.
For the stream itself, it would be nice to see the club take a few steps forward to enhance the fan experience in the coming year.
I’ve always thought that a fan live chat bar would be a nice touch for streaming supporters. It would give an added level of community and involvement to fans who are rarely, if ever able to make it to a match in person. Of course, if made collapsible, like other live streaming events, a chat bar could be hidden for fans who don’t want the bother or distraction.
Another addition would be the options for live game stats, live scoring from around the league(s), live table, etc. These add-ons are available on platforms like ESPN+ for example and would take the SAFC stream to an elite level.
As well as that, a simple addition to the service – if possible with broadcasting rights – would be on-demand replays, enabling supporters to watch the match in their timezone without having to wait until the 24 hours have passed when Sunderland can put the game up on the site for all.
All these suggestions aren’t a necessity, but I do think the club should take a hard look at what upgrades could be made to the streaming service to ensure that fans are spending their hard-earned money on top-quality content.
All said, I’ll be purchasing my season pass this week, and I’m looking forward to being able to follow SAFC this season and watch as many games as possible (now from three angles).
I hope never to endure the pixelated and farcical digital experience from this week ever again.
And I hope Sunderland Association Football Club goes to great lengths to ensure fans all over the world are paying for a streaming service of the highest order.