Today’s sports fans expect digital availability everywhere and their viewing expectations are constantly rising. As fans have more choices to access content outside the home, will broadcasters be able to keep pace with the technology necessary to support live streaming?

Will the Big Game Be Live Streamed or Televised?

OTT (over-the-top, Internet delivery) services are hot.  Yet with all the consumer buzz and soaring market valuations of companies offering OTT service delivery, traditional broadcast television viewing time is not under great pressure.  Nielsen, the industry standard of audience measurement, found in their latest report that 95% of video viewing in the US occurred on traditional broadcast platforms with just 4% of views happening on the Internet and 1% on a smartphone.

So if chants of “we want our content now” can be heard in the streets, why is it that cord-cutting trends aren’t showing massive acceleration, and the earnings of pay TV operators are as strong as ever?

As a fierce supporter of consumer choice, I believe that all platforms should be free to proliferate, since there is a place for the quality and superior experience that can only be delivered by a pay TV service.  Likewise, the ability to view entertainment content outside the home is of such high interest that mobile devices such as tablets are now seen as equal to a 65-inch television hanging on a living room wall.

So what’s holding back the growth of consumer services?  It doesn’t seem to be lack of interest, after all- the answer is sports content.

Options for viewing professional sporting events are limited to pay TV services or network broadcasters.  This means if you choose to forego a pay TV package, or do not live in a market where the game is broadcast on a local channel, the only option available to watch the big game will be at your friend’s house, (who is likely shelling out $80 to $100 month for a pay TV package), or the neighborhood sports-bar.  Otherwise, you will be stuck with updates via Twitter or the radio.  Hardly compelling alternatives, I would say!

But, there’s good news! On Sunday October 25th we’ll get a glimpse of the future when for the first time anyone with an Internet connection will be able to watch a live National Football League (NFL) game exclusively on Yahoo!, and from anywhere in the world, for free via smartphone, computer, game console or smart TV.  Which means if you find yourself no longer watching the “big screen”but opting for your phone or tablet instead, you now have a way to watch the game without your friends teasing you for cheering the wrong team, or some guy spilling his beer on your arm at the sports bar.

The NFL earns a significant portion of its revenues from selling the rights to televise  games, which is why a shift to new delivery methods is a seismic one.  With license terms often spanning ten years or more, it is no surprise that the digital distribution rights to most NFL Sunday games are locked up until 2022 and 2023.  “The league is on a year-to-year contract with CBS for ‘Thursday Night Football’ and it is widely known that they are considering whether to open up streaming of those games to new partners,” according to The New York Times.  

According to Accenture, by 2016 the overall market for sports, concerts and trade programming is estimated to reach $228 billion, and digital live events will account for at least 30% of the total market.  For sports, media and entertainment businesses, the ability to create and execute flawless digital delivery of live events – and successfully monetize the outputs – will be a key differentiator and future earnings driver.  Which is why Major League Baseball has been in the live-streaming business longer than anyone.  The technology division built to deliver live streams of MLB games and MLB Advanced Media events also powers OTT streaming content services by HBO, Sony, ESPN and others.  This provides the MLB valuable monetization opportunities via their video service, At Bat mobile app and accompanying multiplatform Gameday pitch-tracking application.  With fans consuming collectively 71.35 million minutes each day, Major League Baseball is well positioned to benefit from offering access to games, as fans want to see them.

Watching the Game, Uninterrupted

Today’s sports fans demand a broadcast quality experience, regardless of the mode of delivery or viewing device.  Technically speaking, the big issue with OTT delivered content remains whether crowded networks can handle the increased data that comes with streaming video to millions of devices simultaneously. OTT providers like Netflix and Hulu are always seeking more efficient ways to manage bandwidth for Video-on-Demand, but the biggest challenge in streaming a live event is anticipating the bandwidth that will be required, since it fluctuates dramatically from one minute to the next.

Managing the unpredictable and peaky demand of Internet video traffic is the burden of the network. Yet the consumer only knows the service provider as the source, and is unaware of the complex patchwork of vendors and technology providers needed to deliver video to their screen.

Hence, if the service provider is not delivering a broadcast quality feed, the consumer will blame the service provider and not the network.  For this reason both Netflix and Google publish reports listing ISPs from fastest to slowest.  Unfortunately, this is not sufficient, as most consumers are not aware of these reports, and even if they are, they can only switch to a “higher performing” ISP, that is if one operates in their region.

With live sports remaining the one unconquered frontier for OTT, and perhaps the Holy Grail necessary to attract cord-cutters interested in sports, live streaming must rise to the challenge of providing video streams at a smaller file size without sacrificing viewing quality.

While football fans everywhere await the score of the game between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars on the 25th, I’ll be watching closely for the results of how Yahoo! and the NFL navigate the course for the future of sports broadcasting.