Show coverage for the digital age: A look at the business of live webcasting western performance events.
By Jenn Webster
Illustration By Deanna Kristensen
With bona fide perks associated to its use, an army of viewers, and a steady eye towards the future, webcasts have all the makings of a technology most likely to succeed. Webcasting – the act of using streaming media technology to distribute a single content source to many simultaneous viewers – has been widely used to promote equine events in past years. Its utilization means fans of nearly every horse sport can enjoy live, real-time equine action of the most anticipated competitions, all without ever having to leave the comfort of the living room. All a person has to do is open up a laptop or Smart Phone and presto! Enthusiasts across the globe can be in-the-know almost immediately, without spending a single penny on an airline ticket. Webcasts have been hailed as wildly popular within the equine community, presenting an affordable alternative for those who cannot be present.
With so many positives attributed to webcasting, including international exposure to a broader online audience, it may come as a surprise that live streaming has an unfavorable downside.
This past December, the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) found itself at a crossroads on the topic of live internet broadcasting. With attendance of the NCHA Futurity and Mercuria World Finals dwindling during the semifinals and finals of past events, NCHA leadership opted not to host live webcasts of their premier, ticketed futurity events in 2013. A webcast would be available for viewing, but not until a week following the actual finals night.
That decision was met by an outpouring of discontent from NCHA members.
The NCHA acquiesced with an official statement posted on nchanews.com on November 29, 2013.
“While there remains a responsibility to the sponsors and vendors who are financially supporting the show, along with meeting the requirements of the State of Texas through the Texas Major Events Trust Fund, the NCHA Executive Committee is also responsive to the members and fans who simply cannot make the trip to Fort Worth.”
The statement went on to say that the executive committee and staff had wrestled with the decision to modify the webcast and looked at many different possible solutions to accommodate as many members as possible.
“After analyzing webcast traffic, it appears that is at least partially to blame for the decline in attendance,” it read.
With careful reconsideration and in response to member requests, the NCHA agreed to make the World Finals go-rounds, the open and non-pro semifinals and the amateur/non-pro finals available via webcast one day following their respective dates. The executive committee acknowledged the disappointment many would feel in not having a “live” webcast for those signature events at the futurity, but reiterated the importance of featuring the horses and riders in a front of a packed house. Plus, since the NCHA receives more than $3 million per year from the Texas Major Events Trust Fund, a large live attendance at the Futurity wasn’t only a matter of prestige – it was crucial.
Additionally, with a deal struck between the NCHA and RFD-TV earlier in the year to televise NCHA Triple Crown cuttings, cutters in the States could look forward to the futurity being highlighted in national cable television network broadcasts, less than one week after it ended. Unfortunately, without access to RFD-TV, Canadians sounded off with a very different story.
The changes made to the webcast in 2013, plus the significant investment the NCHA put forth in broadcasting the Futurity on RFD-TV was an effort to expose the sport of cutting to people who may never have seen it before. It was a tough call and the immediate ramifications were clearly intense. That being said, the NCHA is hopeful their decision to delay the webcast will produce great ongoing results for a packed, live audience at signature events.
Tom and Marleen Dierkes of Galloping Video in Oregon, provided 5.569 million minutes of downloaded video streaming to western performance enthusiasts in 2013. They have offered live webcasting of National Reined Cow Horse Association events for the last eight years. And generally, four out of five national cow horse events were webcast by Galloping Video for about 50 days per year.
They have no plans to go forward with this service in 2014.
“The job of producing live webcasts were added on to the main job of videoing for the judges, with no funding attached. We were to raise money to cover costs through the sales of ad banners on the webcast page on our website,” said Marleen.
“We provided staffing and equipment to webcast at our own expense. Over the years, the viewer use grew to the point that in 2013 it had become seven times greater in viewer hours and exceeded our ability to fund it with ad revenue.”
Every show association tackles the task of webcasting differently but in Galloping Video’s case, the National Reined Cow Horse Association was never in favor of moving towards a pay-per-view system. The association wanted to keep live webcasts free for viewers.
“We would have liked to have live scoring and other special features, but without money for additional workers, that was not possible,” Marleen said.
For the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity, Galloping Video posted a schedule of events on the same webpage on which the webcast appeared, as well as a link to the draw lists. The company also personally responded to numerous emails from viewers who experienced problems with computer firewalls or other technical difficulties that impeded their ability to watch the live feed. Aspects like judge’s scores, a blurb containing the horse and rider’s name currently in the arena being watched, live sales broadcasts and DVR features (Digital Video Recording, similar to what is commonly used in home televisions for later viewing), are all excellent ways event’s can improve upon their live webcasts. However, those additional streaming features require resources and manpower.
“Webcasts are wildly popular with the public, but they are a financial deficit and an increased workload for us,” Marleen explained.
“In my view, webcasts should come with funding, but there is much disagreement in the horse show industry as to who be should responsible.”
For companies like Galloping Video, live streaming of events also negatively impact video sales of events – which is the primary source of income for many videographers. For instance, in 2013 Galloping Video sold copies of the NRCHA prestigious Snaffle Bit Futurity finals, yet over 11,000 people watched it for free on the internet.
“Associations claim opportunity for good public relations for their events, but at the same time complain about the negative impact [webcasting has] on audience attendance.”
REINING IN THE CROWDS
If there’s one discipline that seems to have the concept of webcasting harnessed to maximum efficiency, it’s reining – both in Canada and the States.
Christa Morris, who is the Senior Director of Marketing and Development with the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA), says that overall the livestreams of the NRHA Futurities and Derbies are big successes.
“We have provided a livestream for many, many years due to the benefit it provides our members – both those who cannot attend and those who are at the event. They can watch their friends and family, as well as their trainers compete and stay current with the schedule and standings in each class.”
Morris states that for those individuals who cannot be present in Oklahoma City, live webcasts might be the only way to see their horse show.
“We think it’s important to provide that option. It’s also a great way for reining fans to see out events, competitors and horses. This helps them get a feel for what NRHA is and how they might be involved. The webcast also gives our corporate partners additional exposure to a much broader audience online.”
In Canada, Dave Benard and his company, HD2 Sports, are responsible to video such reining events as the Reining Alberta Spring Classic and the Canadian Supreme. He admits that providing a webcasting service has its challenges, but echoes Morris’ sentiments.
“Live webcasting is not for the faint of heart. It is easily the most stressful business service I have ever provided. However, we feel that webcasts have become almost an essential service. We get asked many time over while we are setting up for a show, if we are live webcasting the event. The huge smile we get when we say ‘yes’ says it all. The disappointment if we say ‘no’ is also quite obvious,” said Benard.
HD2 Sports works hard to ensure their live webcasts are compatible with mobile devices and Benard relayed that he has heard a variety of reasons why people have enjoyed and appreciated his webcasts in the past.
“It is appreciated most by family or friends who cannot attend the event. Our stats show that we have viewers tuning in from around world. We are learning that the reining world is a very close community and the opportunity to feel connected when you are at home, or at work, seems to be a key benefit.”
In 2013, HD2 Sports experienced virtually no down time on any of their webcasts.
“We are so appreciative of those individuals who take the time to say ‘thank-you’ and let us know the webcast is being enjoyed and appreciated.”