Momentum is growing rapidly behind sports streaming as live events move increasingly onto OTT platforms, but what are the main keys to successful deployments? [Updated July 2023]
At the tail end of 2022 the sports broadcasting industry got a good illustration of how rapidly its landscape is changing when Google paid the NFL a little over $2bn a year to distribute the league's Sunday Ticket package of Sunday afternoon games on YouTube TV and YouTube Primetime Channels. The deal will reportedly last 7 years - costing $14bn in total - and will cost it roughly $500m more per year than satellite broadcaster DirectTV who had held the rights for 8 years was paying.
The pricing for its inaugural 2023/2024 season was recently announced too, with YouTube selling season passes for $449 ($349 for YouTube TV subscribers). That means Google will be looking to sell roughly 4.5 million subscriptions to break even, perhaps around half that number when advertising is factored in to the equation. Either way, it's a lot of people.
The auction for the rights was fierce. Apple and Amazon were both involved in bidding for the Sunday Ticket package. And though they lost, they are active in other sports. Amazon already has Thursday Night Football in the US ($1.2bn a year), while Apple has the rights in 8 countries to MLB's Friday Night Baseball ($85 million per year) and the global rights to Major League Soccer ($250 million a year), now, of course, starring Lionel Messi.
In short, there is a lot of activity in the sector. All in all, Deloitte Global predicts that in 2023 streamers will spend over $6 billion on exclusive major sports rights in the largest global markets. And the fact that it does this in an article titled Live sports: The next arena for the streaming wars tells you all you need to know. Compared to streaming's overall $50bn content spend it might not seem much, but 12% is a significant proportion of the budget - especially given that it was 0% only a few years ago.
Powered by the twin engines of streaming companies looking to purchase rights in a bid to drive sponsorships and sports leagues and federations looking to break into the D2C market, both for primary and ancillary content, the growth of OTT Sports is a genuinely global phenomenon. Monthly US viewers of ‘digital live sports’ are forecast to increase from 57.5 million in 2021 to 90.7 million in 2025, a 58% increase and representing over a quarter of the country’s population.
So, what do OTT operators need to know in order to successfully pivot into the distribution of live content, and what are the barriers to entry for leagues and federations seeking to establish D2C offerings? Here are the three key rules for the new game of sports streaming that you need to know.
Play to win with these 3 crucial rules for sports streaming
1. Secure your streams
Sports content is premium content and, alongside new Hollywood blockbusters and Triple-A Pay-TV titles, is the most tempting target for video piracy. As illegal video piracy has evolved from bittorenting and peer-to-peer downloads of already released content to app-based streaming of live broadcasts, so the pirates have redoubled their efforts to intercept and hack live matches. As such, you must always assume your streams are a target as pirates look to lure viewers away from legitimate services to illegal ones.
It is estimated that you have 15 minutes to take down a live stream to discourage an illegal audience. To ensure that happens you have to use a service that includes technologies such as dynamic watermarking, multi-DRM, and constant 24/7 monitoring. Live sports watermarking helps to ensure that when there is a breach it can be first detected and then acted against, while the match is still ongoing. After the final whistle or checkered flag is too late; those viewers have gone.
You have typically paid a lot of money and/or invested a lot of resources to stream an event. You need to build in security provision from an expert team from the very start if you want to ensure you get the full ROI.
2. Offer a superb experience
Viewers consistently demand more. The rise of streaming services over the past decade has seen them exposed to many different platforms, and they expect a certain level of functionality as a result. The bar has been raised across the industry, and they expect service providers to let them watch what they want, when they want to watch it, and on whatever device that suits them.
For operators, that means you need to be able to offer an excellent service on everything from a 6cm mobile phone screen to a 100-inch television set. Picture quality needs to be exemplary across platforms and operating systems, providing a seamless experience as they move from one to the other, often within the same match. The availability of start-over and time shifted experiences is considered a must, even as the primacy of the live experience is acknowledged.
Latency and buffering issues are particular triggers in the sports viewership and need to be kept to a minimum. This is a challenge as effectively the OTT delivery is having to compete with other mediums that have less complex workflows — radio and internet score updates for instance — but it is one that needs to be met to ensure viewer satisfaction.
3. Accomodate spikes
One of the big challenges for OTT operators when moving to offering live content is planning for the spikes of demand in the system. Start times for watching are suddenly coordinated across the viewership, and the peaks can be dizzyingly high. Any system designed to stream this content must be able to scale suddenly and rapidly, with no choke points in the workflow to limit its expansion or add latency to the signal.
For instance, the system we provide to Tier 1 telecoms operator Orange is capable of a scalable delivery rate of up to 1,000 DRM licenses per second, ensuring that it can quickly meet the needs of an audience tuning in to a big event such as a football match without adding delays into the system and introducing additional latency.
Broadcast-standard SLAs and future-proofing
These are specific considerations for streaming. Of course, operators should also look for the usual broadcast industry SLAs, such as full redundancy for disaster recovery to enable a seamless service in case of things going wrong. They also need to ensure that whatever solution they choose is agile enough to introduce new features as they come onto the market and keep up with wider industry innovation. For example, over the course of the pandemic the concept of the watch party grew from a quirk that required dedicated websites to operate, to a must-have feature in the code of an increasing number of apps.
There is also increasing appetite for multiview capabilities, allowing the end-user to observe a same event from different camera angles and select the primary view for watching, effectively letting them become the director of their own event. Both these features are increasingly part of a viewer’s standard requirements, but they are tricky to do well without introducing delays into the chain or causing problems with the audio. And the requirements don’t stop there, with video scrubbing and the ability to isolate key moments in the stream a growing standard
And amidst all this it is important is for a solution to minimise complexity. This means that broadcasters looking to launch complementary OTT services, OTT operators wanting to augment their existing offering with live broadcasts, and leagues and federations looking to go straight to the consumer can all concentrate on their core tasks and keep on doing what they do best - creating great content and running great sports.