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12 December 2019

One-minute latency clouds Amazon’s innovations in EPL coverage

There was relief all around among Amazon’s Prime Video team that its first week of covering English Premier League matches passed off without any major glitches and a relatively small number of complaints from fans. This was a far cry from the debacle of its first major sports streaming adventure in the UK, its coverage there of the 2018 US Tennis Open championships, when the deluge of complaints was so great that posting was suspended following an IT glitch that meant the volume could not be processed.

Complaints concerned artefacts and buffering as well as inability to use some of the technical innovations around real time data, which left Amazon having to invest heavily to shore up its streaming capacity for the EPL coverage in the UK this month.

It seems to have worked, with the UK real time tracker of streaming service outages and quality issues Downdetector reporting a spike in problems between 19:00 and 22:00 hours on each of the three days of coverage, but at a relatively low level.

Most of the complaints that were made concerned either latency or lack of synchronization between video and commentary, with very few about buffering, freezing or image artefacts. Average latency was about a minute, extending to almost 90 seconds in some cases to guard against buffering. This is a problem still to be resolved, given that key events such as goals being scored or a shot being well saved often came through app notifications ahead of the broadcast. In another story this week we touch on efforts to reduce latency for in-sports betting, where delay is – in a sense – even more critical because there is money at stake for punters and reputation for gaming sites.

However, in its EPL coverage, unlike the 2018 US Open, Amazon was able to enjoy some praise from fans for its technical innovations around real time data. This included Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which allows viewers to follow live match stats supplied by sports data provider Opta, including player line-ups and replays of key highlights during the match in a window beside the live coverage. Subscribers could access X-Ray on mobiles by rotating their devices into portrait mode. The game itself is then shown at the top of the screen with X-Ray stats below.

Amazon Prime also deployed Spidercams to provide bird’s eye views of the action from a radio-controlled camera capable of moving at speeds up to 21mph (33 kmph), suspended at least 10 meters above ground and similar to set ups already used for covering some cricket, tennis and rugby events.

Two obvious questions were what impact the coverage had firstly on Prime subscriptions and secondly on EPL coverage, answers to which will shape future strategy for all parties involved, as well as other leagues and rival streamers, especially perhaps Facebook and Apple.

Amazon did not disclose sign ups but claimed that it gained record numbers of new Prime customers on both nights. It looks like the numbers exceeded a million, which would be enough to cover the cost of the package at about $120 million, but that is questionable because Amazon allows people to try the service for a month and then cancel without payment. Since all the games shown fall within one month, including the follow up on December 26th and 27th, when Amazon will broadcast another complete set of EPL matches (10 altogether featuring the 20 teams), we can expect a number of cancellations from fans who signed up purely to watch this coverage.

Early indications suggest that Amazon is encouraged by the outcome sufficiently to consider coming in more strongly for a larger package when rights next come up for auction in 2021. Other streamers were watching too.

By the same token, the EPL was enthused because Amazon’s coverage extended reach with almost three quarters of UK soccer fans able to view at least some matches at home now, as opposed to about 55% before, although admittedly those extra 18% or so only get to see two rounds of games a year.

Against this is the frustration expressed by some fans over growing fragmentation with matches spread across three parties, Sky and BT Sport as well now as Amazon. However, that has been mitigated to some extent by Sky and BT carrying each other’s games, although even then fans still have to pay extra for both as separate bundles, benefiting just from the convenience of a single portal and billing relationship.

This issue of fragmentation has also cropped up in Germany, where Amazon has just followed up its relatively successful EPL coverage debut by winning rights to a rather more significant package of European Champions League matches for coverage there. Starting from 2021, Amazon Prime Video will show ‘first-pick’ matches, that is the biggest games, on Tuesday evenings of each game-week when half of them are shown, the rest being on Wednesday. Those rights are currently held entirely by Sky Deutschland for Germany, although a package is sub-licensed to sports streamer DAZN. The auction for rights during the later knock out stages is still ongoing.

This has led though to Christian Seifert, chief executive of the German Football League (DFL), indicating that he will move to curb inflation in the number of domestic pay TV Bundesliga broadcasters when those rights next go to tender in 2021. They are currently shared between Sky Deutschland and Eurosport, with the latter then sublicensing to DAZN.

Seifert has now indicated he wants to avoid there being more than two rights holders for the 2021 to 2024 period, perhaps with an eye on the current EPL situation as well. He is concerned over requiring fans to subscribe to multiple packages just for one league, although how that will play out in the bidding is not yet clear. It could move the dial more towards one winner takes all, which might favor the big streamers.