AHL Live – What It Is, Isn’t, Should Be, & Can’t

These are tumultuous days to be a hockey fan. What to do when your league of extraordinary gentlemen gets locked out for the third time in a relatively short span? And for reasons that could’ve been negotiated sooner, and with more cordial results. Any way you slice it – 1,3,6 months – the National Hockey League is in dire straits, and so fans look onward and upward for replacements.

And the closest option, in terms of interest, will likely come from an attentive eye towards the AHL farm teams. And that’s a great replacement for NHL fans needing a dose of puck. But how do you watch your new favorite team play? I give you, AHL Live.

Important Note: The information below is based on the 2011-12 season pricing. I’ve purchased various packages for three straight years, and have used a healthy dose of Mac vs. PC and wired vs. wireless connections

What It Is
AHL Live is the streaming service provided by the American Hockey League. It is a service piped to you via NeuLion. Whether you realize it or not, NeuLion is a familiar product. The Internet Television company provides streaming features to the NHL (GameCenter), NBA, NFL, MLS, CFL, numerous collegiate athletic teams, junior hockey squads, and various other sporting endeavors. Although wrapped in a brand name, the features offered by NeuLion are quite fantastic — when taken advantage of by the specific leagues.

It’s a service that works well in various settings. I’ve used it for NHL coverage, NFL Rewind, and the Big Ten Network in addition to watching AHL hockey.

There are many factors to consider both when watching and paying for AHL Live.

Purchasing games one-at-time will cost you $6.99 per game. A season pass for one team, home and away, will cost you $149.99 early bird and $199 late buyer. To purchase all teams, home and away, you’ll shell out $349 early bird and $399 late buyer. The postseason is an additional fee, and not included in your original regular season package. In every purchase you have the choice of home or away radio feeds, a simpleton chat window, a simple streaming box and very few bells and whistles. No pause, no rewind, no game tracker, no picture in picture. It’s also built around Microsoft Silverlight, and does not feature mobile steaming.

The service quality is SD even by web standards. Often grainy, always delayed a minute or two, the content certainly leaves much to be desired.

There is no AHL standard of connection pipeline in the AHL, and so stream quality on the game end varies greatly between markets. Hamilton is better than most, Houston is terrible.

There are various markets that embrace the steaming possibilities and produce a television show, while most use the in-house “jumbotron” camera feed for their at-home viewers.

The service is great for diehards, and likely unbearable for those used to better quality streams. Coupled with the high price, it’s hard for some to consider this as a viable option to watch hockey.

What It Isn’t
AHL Live is what it is. It’s not GameCenter Live, nor is it a familiar product in the NeuLion catalog. Rather it’s an inexpensive (for the league) option for fans wanting just a little more from their team. The obvious reason that it is limited is because it isn’t heavily used. The core economics situation demands that a bigger market equals a better price point. The league said it best at the beginning of last season via their Facebook page:

We wish AHLLive.com had the same fan base and traffic as the NHL enjoys. Then we could also offer lower prices to cover the similar fixed costs for these types of services.

The double-edged sword of it all is that the beginning price is so high for the service that the league will never be able to garnish a large user surge that would drive the cost down. And thus the pricing has stayed high with no sign of changing. Until now.

What It Should Be
With no NHL hockey bring played (at least for an unknown duration), the minor league AHL should seriously consider making a play for better pricing with added options. For me, I can somewhat justify a highly priced stream when it can be viewed in multiple fashions – mobile, online, etc. Narrowing it down to computer based only is another detriment to the product. Others might have other justifiable reasons for paying a steep price. But if you could couple those additional features with a more reasonable dollar amount, suddenly you get the number of users that you’ve been pining for.

The truth is, the numbers can’t NOT go up this next season. By sheer curiosity, NHL goers will give the service a whirl. And the league likes that. What they don’t like is the drop off that comes when major league hockey begins again, whenever that might be.

What It Can’t Be
This service shouldn’t be a GameCenter equivalent. It’s just not that type of league. One where people faithfully follow a team, a brand, a set of players for long stretches. The league-wide statistics have shown that outside of Hershey, very few AHL teams have long-committed fans. It’s a league of young ‘uns and yeoman, and that makes for an uneven sale. Very few overcome this fact.

It also can’t be super cheap. There just aren’t enough people willing to shell out a chunk of change for minor league hockey.

Sadly, it also can’t be expected to be much different than in years past. And this is a big problem. The AHL is an important league, but a minor league one. The visions of grandeur have never been all that tremendous. Just look at their All Star Game. It’s never been played West of the Mississippi. And that’s because they make their money where the money is to be made. It’s a league bound to comfortability and confinement. That’s not one persons fault, it’s just life.

So take the time to consider your options with AHL Live. For the beginner, buy one game. If you like it, buy another. If you can stand it, maybe the full season package is for you. But tread lightly, you may be underwhelmed.