Relegation harms more than just a team, it puts its fans in the dark

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One of the greatest moments in Fulham history unfolded for me in Spring 2008 in pixelated form via the diciest of illegal online streams.

Computer viruses be damned, I was glued to a Sopcast feed as my club came back from 2-0 down with 20 minutes left at Manchester City to win 3-2 and stave off what seemed like certain relegation. Subsequent victories in the final two matches of that Premier League season crafted survival on goal difference.

The very next season, Fulham jumped from 17th to seventh place and improbably booked a spot in Europe, but none of that would have been possible without Diomansy Kamara scoring a “wonderful, wonderful goal for Fulham” in the 93rd minute at City of Manchester Stadium. 

As incredible as the next several seasons were for Fulham – a stretch that included a miraculous run to the Europa League final and two additional top-10 league finishes – they were equally significant for American fans of the team, as live soccer programming became much more readily available. Gone were the days of rare appearances on Fox Soccer Channel mixed in with risky, weekly dives into Sopcasts, TVAnts and bootleg sites like Iraq Goals. In came Fox Soccer Plus, a second soccer channel crafted from the ashes of Setanta Sports USA, and then FoxSoccer 2Go, a subscription online service.

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I paid for it all. The cable sports pack, the extra premium for Plus, and eventually the $20/month for the online product, too. I didn’t care. I was finally able to watch Fulham every week with (relative) ease. Then, in 2013, American soccer-watching Nirvana arrived when NBC took over the rights to the Premier League and offered every match for free (or for the cost of whatever it took to get NBCSN on your TV).

We are now able to watch all 380 Premier League matches live every season, which is way more than is actually available in England. Of course, that excitement assumes your club is still in the Premier League. Which mine isn’t. And suddenly, it’s like being back in the early 2000s again.

With Fulham having been relegated to the Championship for this season, it’s now harder than ever to watch my club play. Upstart broadcaster BeIN Sports owns the U.S. rights to England’s second division, but they only show one or two of the league’s games per week. The offerings are expanded a bit through their BeIN Sports Connect online service (similar to NBCSN’s Premier League Extra), but it’s still a very small portion of the league schedule.

A huge chunk of Championship matches aren’t even televised in England. That means no feed to steal. That means no illegal online streams, even if your laptop was craving the viral load that usually accompanies them. That means no Fulham for me, which is really weird and sad after a decade of crafting Saturday mornings around a team playing 3,000 (and now, from Denver, 5,000) miles away.

The club actually posted full replays of the first two league matches of this season on its website right after the 24-hour TV rights window expired, but the last two matches have only been shown in extended highlights form. Either way, I can’t do soccer that way. There’s almost no chance I could avoid the score for a full day, and soccer, for me, anyway, is not a sport to be watched later, when you have an easy way out of a match that’s slow to fire.

I’m not much for gamecasts supported by a streaming radio call, either, although I tried that for the second match of the season. So, each week, I frantically check to see if there’s a TV stream available anywhere in the world, which raises hopes to somehow swipe it. I search team message boards for possible shady links on match day. Same with the r/soccer forum on Reddit.

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If one is suggested, you re-check your antivirus software, hold your nose and decide whether to click. I actually was able to watch the last match Fulham played, via BeIN Sports Connect, but I almost wish I hadn’t witnessed the 5-1 defeat at Derby County, the fourth in a row in what’s quickly becoming a nightmarish rebuild season. It’s almost unfathomable what’s happening at the club, and the lack of access after so many years of visual familiarity is heightening the angst. You seriously can’t believe what you’re not seeing.

The specter of relegation usually is bandied about in the British press in terms of monetary cost. The difference between TV money in the Premier League and the second division is massive. Last year’s last-place Premier League finisher still got north of $100 million in TV cash for their troubles, and it’s estimated that Fulham’s club value was chopped in half by dropping down a division, even with four years of so-called “parachute payments” coming to the club if they don’t make it back up.

For fans, though – especially those who aren’t locals – relegation in the modern era is devastating from an access standpoint. As I’ve worked in sports media longer and longer, I’ve shed aside much of my casual sports fandom. Fulham was really the only thing I had left that spurred my passion, and now, even as more soccer than ever before is being shown in the U.S., they’re more or less gone from my Saturday mornings. Gone from my routine. Not gone yet from my emotional investment, but how passionate can you be about something that effectively doesn’t exist?

Searching Twitter for “Magath sacked” can only take you so far. So, the next time you see an American decked out in Chelsea or Manchester United gear, you can poke a little fun and laugh about their plastic-ness. But you know what? They’ll get to watch their teams every weekend this season, and every season in perpetuity. And now I’m more or less stuck watching them, too.