Why the war on figure skating YouTube is a no-win battle
Another figure skating season is winding toward a close, with the World Championships starting next week in Saitama, Japan. Like most, I’m looking forward to Worlds with anticipation.
It’s been a year of great skating and great memories. Yet all along, there’s been a shadow over this season. I’ve loved all the special performances and moments, including those yet to come in Saitama. But I’m also sad because we lost a lot of memories and moments this season. How so? When thousands of figure skating videos were deleted from YouTube.
There’s been a quiet war of sorts going on in figure skating this year, between TV broadcasters and the fans who create and upload figure skating videos to YouTube. The conflict seemed to really start a year ago, with the 2018 World Championships.
Last spring, videos of 2018 Worlds started to get blocked almost as soon as they went up on YouTube. In previous years, TV broadcasters had blocked certain videos, particularly from events in Japan, and Olympic videos were always strictly controlled. But 2018 Worlds was perhaps the first big competition for which nearly all videos were blocked. Even now, a year later, there are only a few scattered videos online from 2018 Worlds. It’s almost as if the competition never happened, judging from its online presence.
This season, TV broadcasters such as FujiTV (Japan), SBS TV (South Korea), and NBC (USA) continued to block many or most videos from Grand Prix competitions. Their efforts resulted in entire skating YouTube channels going down this winter. With each channel that disappeared, hundreds or thousands of figure skating videos went with it.
Many fans in the skating community were stunned, even anguished. For the past 5 to 10 years, figure skating has arguably thrived in one place above all others: YouTube. Even if ticket sales and TV ratings weren’t always great, people were watching figure skating on YouTube. And until recently, TV broadcasters and the ISU had mostly turned a blind eye to the existence of figure skating videos on YouTube.
Over the past decade, YouTube skating videos have become an integral part of the figure skating experience. Fans around the world rely on YouTube videos as a key and–in many cases, primary–way to watch the sport. Popular videos of big stars like Yuzuru Hanyu or Mao Asada frequently have thousands or even millions of views. Even early-season videos of obscure, low-ranked skaters at club competitions can garner hundreds of views. Fans watch figure skating videos to enjoy and learn about the sport. Skaters and coaches watch videos to analyze their own performances and that of rivals. Skating journalists and writers utilize videos for research purposes.
Why have YouTube skating videos become such a big part of the sport? Accessibility. Figure skating event coverage is like a patchwork full of holes: Everything depends on where you are. If you’re in a big skating country, you may get to see Grand Prix and major ISU competitions in their entirety, via network or cable TV or through a paid streaming service such as NBCSportsGold or Eurosport. However, fans in smaller countries frequently do not enjoy this luxury. Even a country with a skating community of reasonable size, like Australia, may not have any officially sanctioned TV or streaming coverage of major events. For many skating fans around the world, the only way to watch major events is via illegal streams or YouTube videos.
Coverage of smaller events, such as Challenger Series, Winter Universiade, senior B, and big club competitions, is even spottier. Fans must rely on free or paid livestreams provided by event organizers. Livestreams can happen at any hour of the day, while fans are at work, asleep, or taking care of family obligations. The real-time accessibility of livestreams is therefore limited. However, the reach of livestreams extends greatly when videos get created from the streams and uploaded to YouTube.
YouTube makes skating gloriously easy to find and watch. Just type in a search–say, Yuna Kim 2013 Worlds–and a video comes up. You can watch it right then and there. If you have more time, you can search for groups of videos for an entire event. YouTube is like a treasure box for skating fans.
And fans love it. Figure skating videos are shared endlessly on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and forums. Videos are arguably, in many ways, the lifeblood of the sport now.
How do people become skating fans? Each story is different, but probably most start in this way: Something happens to catch a person’s interest in figure skating. They want to see more figure skating. They go to YouTube, and find and watch skating videos. And it grows from there.
Figure skating needs to be seen–must be seen–to maintain and grow its popularity. Accessibility is everything. The ISU itself appears to increasingly recognize the importance of accessibility. Its project to show the Junior Grand Prix series via free online streaming (no geoblocking in most countries)–and through the ISU’s own YouTube channel–has led to clear and significant growth in viewership of the Junior Grand Prix. This is accessibility: If you make the sport available, its popularity and audience base have a legitimate chance to grow.
Allowing YouTube skating videos is arguably the ISU’s most high-impact way of making the sport accessible. YouTube not only dwarfs all other video sources in popularity; its user base is also weighted toward younger consumers, a desirable demographic for extending the skating fanbase.
With all this in mind, I think there’s a solid argument that YouTube videos are vital to the sport’s continued long-term growth and to fans’ ability to watch competitions.
Yet, the hard truth is that the legality of most figure skating videos is questionable at best. When TV broadcasters sign agreements with the ISU, they purchase some form of exclusive broadcast/digital rights to a skating event. So skating videos are usually, or always, in breach of rights contracts. The broadcasters and the ISU are within their legal rights to pursue copyright claims against YouTube videos. No one can argue this point.
Former ISU Council member Sonia Bianchetti underlined the importance of broadcast rights sales to the ISU in her 2004 book Cracked Ice. “All the financial resources of the ISU derive solely from the contracts with sponsors and television networks all over the world that buy the rights to broadcast [ISU] championships,” Bianchetti stated unequivocally.
Has this financial reality changed since 2004? Likely not. In an interview last spring, current ISU Vice President of Figure Skating Alexander Lakernik alluded to the importance of broadcast rights in the ISU’s revenue model. Asked about changes to the length of pairs’ and men’s free skates, Lakernik stated: “There are much more prosaic things than time–this is the interest of television and sponsors. This is money, at the expense of which lives figure skating. If we make changes, we have to coordinate them.”
So, if the ISU decides to support TV broadcasters’ copyright claims against skating videos, not only are they within their rights, it’s also understandable from a business point of view. But the question still remains: Why move aggressively now to enforce those rights? What changed? If you look on YouTube, there are many videos from every World championships over the past decade–except for Worlds 2018. Why did that event mark the start of a clampdown?
One possibility: The European Union recently has considered stringent, controversial new changes to copyright law that put pressure on YouTube to further tighten their content upload filter. It’s possible, although not known, that these changes could be playing some role in the skating copyright claims.
There’s been near-total radio silence from the ISU about the actions against YouTube skating videos. However, the coordinated timing and volume of recent copyright complaints suggests a concerted policy, rather than random coincidence. Did the ISU decide to back broadcasters in taking action against fan videos? Did TV rights holders demand this type of action?
It’s not hard to understand why TV broadcasters and streaming companies might object to skating videos going up 5 minutes after a skating broadcast. Directly after an event, TV networks and streaming channels may still expect to pull in additional viewers over the next week or two via repeats, late broadcasts, and archived streams. But financially, does it make sense for rights holders to continue to delete videos months after a competition (as continued to happen with Worlds 2018 videos this year)? Six months after an event, are there still significant numbers of fans logging into old archived streams of competitions? How big of a threat can videos from 6-month-old events be to broadcasters’ business models?
Fans don’t necessarily object to the ISU or TV broadcasters making money. Most fans realize that the ISU needs income to fulfill its mission of running and judging competitions. But if the ISU shores up revenue by supporting broadcasters’ claims against YouTube videos, then its short-term revenue interests come into conflict with fans’ interest in watching the sport. They may also be risking the long-term growth and expansion of the sport’s popularity.
Is there a way out of this dilemma?
The troubling thing about the ISU’s current business model is that it may not last.
Viewership rates for broadcast TV have declined in recent years in the U.S., as new forms of Internet media and entertainment compete for consumers’ attention. The same trend is occurring in Japan, the current epicenter of the sport’s popularity.
A 2017 white paper about the media market in Japan stated the following:
Although television remains a dominant force in the [Japanese] media market, it has been losing ground to the Internet in recent years. Viewers are increasingly watching videos online, and broadcasters are under growing pressure to utilize the Internet as part of their business strategy. It is widely believed that the rise of the Internet is engendering significant changes in lifestyles and viewing habits. Television stations are responding with efforts to promote their programs on the Internet and through social media, as they look for ways to both maintain traditional viewership and leverage new opportunities.
Currently, the ISU relies on broadcast TV rights sales to fund its operations. But as viewers around the world move away from traditional TV to online media, will this revenue stream be reliable in the future? Or is it time for the ISU to look past this 20th-century business model and explore new ways of generating revenue?
In his 2016 book The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change, Harvard Business School professor Bharat Anand explores different business models for today’s digital age. Anand argues that many businesses today risk failure because they are too invested in traditional concepts of selling content, rather than connections and access. What he calls “the content trap” arises when businesses fail to understand the larger aspects of their market and what their consumers really want. He warns against “the effort to preserve content at all costs–rather than seizing the opportunities around it.” Current efforts to stop the spread of skating videos on YouTube can be seen as an attempt to protect content–even at the expense of alienating the sport’s biggest fans.
Anand argues that companies/institutions should instead pursue a customer-focused strategy, the foundation of which is understanding what customers really want and what forces (e.g., price, availability) are driving customer behavior. “Once you’ve formed a worldview about customer behavior, you’re ready to tackle the second part of the strategy process: Figuring out what to offer customers in a way that matches their behavior with your unique capabilities,” Anand argues.
As we near the third decade of this century, does the ISU fully understand current trends in figure skating and media markets? Are they conducting the necessary research? And have they considered building a new revenue model or an updated worldview of their current customers and what they seek? I hope the ISU is taking a close look at these questions. The future of the sport may depend on it.
Some might ask what a new revenue model for the ISU would look like. Well, the future doesn’t necessarily mean giving figure skating fans everything they want for free. But the future should be about accessibility: Making the sport as available as possible for fans–even if it’s at a price.
I’m far from a business development expert. But I do know the ISU’s customers–skating fans–and I have at least some idea what I think many of us want. We want access to the sport, first and foremost: To be able to see the skating. Most of us, I think, also want community. We want to share our experience of the skating, in some way. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, forums, Discord, and all the other media through which skating fans communicate. Many fans would also like some form of access to skaters, coaches, and choreographers–a chance to hear & see stories about their training, their lives, their interests. And most fans want to see live skating and attend competitions when they can.
What future products could satisfy some of those customer desires? Some ideas for consideration:
— How about an ISU web site that provides videos of all Grand Prix and ISU championship events–perhaps available after a time lag to satisfy TV broadcast rights–and accessible either on a paid subscription or ad-supported free basis?
— Or what about a more comprehensive ISU social media hub, offering not only videos but access to unique news coverage, enhanced figure skating fantasy competitions, opportunities for fans to share opinions through tools such as daily/weekly polls or viewpoint video contests, plus, perhaps, exclusive opportunities to interact with skaters or coaches via webinar-type sessions or exclusive vlogs?
— Or how about a full-scale model of figure skating membership, offering all of the above, plus special discounts or contests for members to travel to competitions, access to special seating at events for members with higher subscription levels, reward programs for fans attending multiple competitions, and more?
I don’t know if any of these product concepts could be revenue-positive for the ISU. Consider them as ideas, or starting points, to suggest how the ISU could look to totally revamp their business model for the 21st century–rather than cling to the model established in the 1950s/60s.
In order for our sport to succeed, the ISU must succeed financially. Bottom line, it needs revenue to fund its operations. Yet at the same time, the ISU cannot succeed at the expense of alienating the fans of this sport and limiting their access to the sport by disallowing skating on YouTube. There must be a way for the ISU to make money and prosper, yet still allow fans the crucial access they want. I’m convinced this is a problem that can be solved–but it may require creative thinking.
With each skating video that disappears from YouTube, fans and skaters lose not just a performance, but a memory and a singular moment in the history of the sport. In many ways, videos are figure skating in the 21st century. Until some other form emerges, they are our collective repository and history. They enable our experience of the sport. We can ill afford to lose them.
“YouTube Revenue and Usage Statistics (2018)” http://www.businessofapps.com/data/youtube-statistics/
“Global Digital Video Viewers: eMarketer’s Estimates and Forecast for 2016-2021” https://www.emarketer.com/Report/Global-Digital-Video-Viewers-eMarketers-Estimates-Forecast-20162021-with-YouTube-Mobile-Video-Numb
“Why Traditional TV Is in Trouble” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/13/business/media/television-advertising.html
“Japan Spends Less Time Watching Television” https://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/07/08/japan-spends-less-time-watchitelevision/
“Information Media Trends in Japan 2016” (white paper) http://www.dentsu.com/knowledgeanddata/publications/pdf/information_media_trends_in_japan_2016.pdf
“Copyright Laws Are Breaking YouTube. Here’s How to Fix the Problem” https://theweek.com/articles/608700/copyright-laws-are-breaking-youtube-heres-how-fix-problem
“YouTube CEO Calls EU’s Proposed Copyright Regulation Financially Impossible” https://www.theverge.com/2018/11/12/18087250/youtube-ceo-copyright-directive-article-13-european-union
“Piracy Is Progressive Taxation” https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/14-years-later-piracy-progressive-taxation-still-rings-tim-o-reilly/
“Vice President of ISU on How to Change Figure Skating” (Russian) https://tass.ru/interviews/5078235
“ISU’s Junior Grand Prix Free Live Streams Boost Figure Skating Views Around the World” https://olympics.nbcsports.com/2018/12/05/isus-junior-grand-prix-free-live-streams-boost-figure-skating-views-around-the-world/
“The Content Trap: A Conversation with HBS Economist Bharat Anand” https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-content-trap-a-conversation-with-hbs-economist_us_5892077ae4b080b3dad6fe00
The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change, by Bharat Anand https://www.amazon.com/Content-Trap-Strategists-Digital-Change/dp/0812995384/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=The+content+trap&qid=1552230385&s=gateway&sr=8-1
Cracked Ice: Figure Skating’s Inner World, by Sonia Bianchetti Garbato https://www.amazon.com/Cracked-Ice-Figure-Skatings-Inner/dp/8886753721/ref=sr_1_fkmrnull_1?keywords=Cracked+Ice+sonia+bianchetti&qid=1552524636&s=gateway&sr=8-1-fkmrnull