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9 January 2020

Quality trumps low latency for live sports streaming

Amid all the obsession with low latency for live streaming, especially sports given the obvious handicap of being substantially behind live when events such as goals scored are celebrated earlier by viewers nearby, it turns out that consumers are much more concerned about quality. That conclusion can at least be drawn from recent experiences such as Amazon’s coverage of both the National Football League (NFL) in the US, and of the English Premier League (EPL) in the UK.

Having been pilloried for its poor quality and reliability over coverage of the US Open tennis tournament in 2018, Amazon attracted quite favorable feedback from its recent coverage of two midweek packages of EPL matches in particular, despite the streams still running up to a minute behind live.

This point has also been picked up by Boston-based online video platform (OVP) developer Brightcove in its latest quarterly Global Video Index, which examines several hundred million data points from its customers. While noting that sports streaming is booming in most markets, the survey reports feedback that the added perks of online streaming, such as alternate announcements, expanded statistics, data dives and instant replays, more than compensate in consumers’ eyes for lagging behind live.

Latency is clearly not seen by consumers as quite the cardinal sin that streamers and rights holders had assumed, although that does not mean the issue has suddenly dissolved completely or cutting delay is still not important. The main reason though for consumers being reticent at first to watch major sporting events online was simply their perception of quality and reliability, fears that were entirely justified and still are in the case of some services.

Brightcove did well to speculate on the implications of these findings for legacy pay TV operators. It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the assumption long held by pay TV operators that sports was their last bastion against the streaming invasion is now dead in the water. But on the other hand, it means they can meet the streamers at their own game and exploit rights they already have, as some are doing quite successfully.

Brightcove notes for example that Sky Deutschland is offering a low-priced sports package on its streaming service Sky Ticket for €9.99 a month that includes live highlights of Bundesliga, 2nd division Bundesliga, and the UEFA Champions League. There are also dedicated streaming services such as DAZN and ESPN+ streaming hundreds of live events, although the latter now has the weight of Disney behind it.

One trend missed by Brightcove is that money is not the only consideration leagues and event owners take into account during rights auctions, with protection against piracy now a major concern because of its threat to the TV revenues upon which all premium global sports now depend. On this count, the pay TV operators may feel on secure ground amid revelations about the amount of content being ripped from the big streamers, even if that has mostly been on demand material.

The other selling point is the quality of experience and here pay TV operators can no longer rely on the supremacy of their broadcast channels, and in some cases are even having to play catch up over features.

One point from the Brightcove survey that may appear reassuring to legacy pay TV is the finding that sports content of all lengths, from shorts or highlights to full games, is viewed to completion most often on the biggest screens available. For that reason Connected TVs (CTVs) see completion rates even for short sports content lasting 0-5 minutes 71% of the time, against computers in second place at 61%, tablets 46% and smartphones 44%.

The same holds for medium-form content lasting 6-20 minutes where the numbers are 75% on connected TVs, 45% on computers, 41% on tablets and 32% on smartphones. Long-form content lasting 21 minutes to 40 minutes sees completion rates of 66% on CTVs, 53% on computers, 41% on tablets, and 31% on smartphones. For the longest content lasting 41 minutes or more, completion rates fall off for all categories, with even CTVs dropping to 36% completion rates, although well ahead of computers on 22%, tablets 19% and smartphones 10%.

In all cases, completion rates increase with screen size. Indeed, despite the rise in tablet and smartphone viewing, the bigger screens are holding their own for sports viewing more than is the case for other genres. It is true that smartphones are enjoying the lion’s share of sports video starts, according to Brightcove at 54%, with computers next at 40%, while tablets and CTVs are nowhere near at 6% and 1% respectively. The CTV starts figure will rise rapidly though as match-length content becomes more common globally.

But the rise of CTVs will not of itself help legacy pay TV because their whole point is that they can also access internet content. A large amount of viewing of premium sports events when streamed is either on CTVs or non-connected TVs via casting. So, while there will be opportunities for smaller niche streamers of second and third tier sports, increasingly only major well-endowed players will be able to compete for premium packages, which is one force driving consolidation among major operators. Sky for example backed by Comcast will still be in the running in later auctions when the technology giants like Amazon, Apple and Facebook really take the gloves off.