German Bundesliga blocks internet Handball broadcasts to rest of world

In what I consider to be one of the most short-sighted moves in the history of sports marketing the German Bundesliga and their TV/internet marketer DSF have decided to limit the sale of internet Bundesliga matches to only the German speaking countries of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein. Below is the text of the letter that I sent Sunday night to the HBL (Bundesliga), DSF and the USA Federation:

HBL: Mr Frank Bohman, Mark Schober
DSF: Mr Sascha Jungbluth
USA Team Handball: Mr Steve Pastorino, Mr Dieter Esch, Mr Ralf Uhding, Mr Steve Krassner

Subject: Internet TV restrictions for German Bundesliga broadcasts

This past Friday night after putting my two young daughters to bed, I opened a beer and sat down in front of my computer eager to see a key Bundesliga matchup between Rhein-Neckar Lowen and Hamburg. Having seen R-NL get trounced by Kiel on DSF in week 1, I was curious to see how they would bounce back. Instead, I got the following message on my computer monitor:

“Leider ist Ihre Netzwerkadresse (IP) nicht für die Nutzung unseres Angebots freigegeben. Aus lizenzrechtlichen Gründen müssen wir uns auf Zuschauer aus Deutschland, Schweiz, Österreich, Luxemburg und Liechtenstein beschränken.

We are sorry to inform you that your network address (IP) is not allowed to access our streaming content. Due to licensing restrictions, we can only accept viewers from Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein.”

While, I welcome the first ever use of the English language on the HBL’s internet platform, I am disappointed and puzzled by the HBL’s decision to deny Handball fans around the world the opportunity to purchase Bundesliga matches for viewing. For the past two years I’ve enjoyed watching matches on my computer through the Sportdigital platform and haven’t been shy about promoting it as the absolutely best Handball product on the internet. I’ve also tried unsuccessfully to get the HBL to market this product, but have been told that the HBL is instead focused on securing traditional broadcast contracts and that they are concerned that actively promoting internet streaming will hamper their ability to sign those contracts. Hence, the German language only website which I can attest as a challenge (“Bestellen” means “order” for example) to this customer as I patiently struggled for 30 minutes trying to figure out how to send the HBL money. But, now with the geoblock in place even this is no longer an option.

At the risk of stating the obvious here are a few points to consider:

1) No handball fan in his right mind prefers internet streaming content on his computer over TV broadcasts. The quality of the picture is a dramatic step down and can’t compete with relaxing on your couch and watching on a larger TV screen. Maybe someday the quality of internet streaming will match TV quality, but that day has not yet arrived. Therefore, the argument that internet streaming will prevent a TV contract doesn’t make sense. In fact, I think that a strong case that the reverse is true in that a decently marketed internet streaming product could eventually result in viewer numbers that could entice TV stations to sign a contract.

2) Highly successful professional sports leagues such as the NBA, Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL) sell internet broadcasts of their matches to non-traditional markets. For instance, it’s possible for a German to pay and watch NFL and NBA matches. If it works for these highly successful leagues to market their product in Germany, one would think it would make sense for the HBL to do same in reverse. It’s also worth noting, that these leagues do have geoblocking blackout restrictions, but that their restrictions are only applied to countries that already have TV contracts. The reverse strategy of the HBL! And even in countries where they do have TV contracts, games are blocked only on case by case basis.

3) The opportunity for niche marketing in emerging markets is being missed. Rather than freezing out markets with geoblocking, why not skillfully cultivate them by offering discounted rates to watch matches over the internet. The vast majority of handball fans in many countries have a very limited knowledge and appreciation of club handball in Europe. Offering matches over the internet could rapidly change that and as the sport grows the HBL would have the benefit of being the early adopter. And I’ve read that the HBL and the U.S. now have a cooperative agreement. In the eyes of this observer a lot of nice words have been exchanged, without anything really tangible being provided. Certainly, offering web streaming to U.S. members at a discount would be something tangible and a clear win-win for both organizations.

I hope you will consider what I’ve suggested as an opportunity to pursue. At the very least I’d like an explanation on the geoblocking situation that I can share with my readers.

Yours sincerely,

John Ryan, Editor
Team Handball News

Previous Team Handball News articles on web streaming:
Oct 2007: Handball on TV in the USA? Yes!:
Oct 2008: EHF Champions League TV Coverage (Great Job, but more Bits Please!):
Jan 2009: World Championship Handball Web Streaming: Slow, but Steady Progress:

As of this posting, I have not received a response from the HBL or DSF. Steve Pastorino, however, did send a short message indicating that USA Team Handball fully supports any effort to broadcast handball via internet, TV or cable and that they would make their position known to the HBL.

If you’ve ever wondered why this great sport hasn’t successfully expanded from its narrow European market here’s a little more evidence for you.

Update (23 Sep 09): I got a short message from the HBL Bundesliga General Manager, Frank Bohmann in response to my letter. Mr Bohmann emphasized the licensing rights prevented the offering of internet streaming and that the HBL is aggressively working toward TV broadcasts in other markets. While I like the fact that they are working towards TV broadcasts it's still puzzling to me that internet and TV licensing impact each other so strongly. Hopefully, a more satisfactory resolution will be reached in the near future.