Times are tough for traditional broadcasters and live TV; the rise of on-demand TV and paid subscription services isn’t a secret and a large amount of the population are turning to these alternatives rather than their established counterparts. When it comes to sports, however, it’s a different playing field. No one can dispute the buzz of the build up of watching sports live: the pre-match commentary, immersive experiences and knowing thousands of other fans are tuning it at the same time are enough to hook even the ‘one time only’ or seasonal sports fans. The 2019 Champion’s League Final attracted a record 11.3 million viewers across all digital and TV platforms – BT Sport made it free to watch its OTT app, website and YouTube channel which certainly boosted figures. Whilst 6.5 million watched it on traditional TV, the digital platform wasn’t far behind with 4.8 million viewing it via OTT.
With many viewers turning to OTT over TV, could live sports OTT be the last saviour for sports broadcast? What are the intricacies involved in delivering live sports OTT, and how can platforms score the winning goal and keep the user experience in check?
Paying the price
The popularity of live sports isn’t set to decrease any time soon. In fact, in 2017, 60% of the highest viewed TV programmes were sports and out of the top five most viewed programmes, four were sporting events. Whilst the broadcast industry might be seeing a decline in traditional broadcast, it is also seeing a rapid uptake in online viewerships for live sports.
However, when it comes to watching mainstream sports on traditional pay TV, the customer doesn’t usually benefit. Customers usually need to have a package to view the live fixture, or if it’s not included in their subscription choice, they’ll need to pay an additional fee on top. What’s more, the package they need will depend on which sport they want to watch and on which channel, as it’s rare for all sports to be covered. Of course, this is likely to leave the customer frustrated by having to pay again, or worse, missing out on watching the fixture at all.
Online, however, has got the commercial model right and therefore is high on the sports OTT scoreboard. Not only is it easy to access, but customers can pay per fixture so aren’t tied to expensive subscriptions. The infrastructure has also become increasingly reliable so whether it’s watching the Monaco F1 race, the Champion’s League final or the Wimbledon doubles, viewers can still watch their favourite matches and events, on any device, wherever they are.
Forget the freeze
Of course, if customers are splashing the cash to watch a live sports match, they won’t be happy if the stream isn’t smooth, or cuts out altogether. No one wants to miss the tense moment of a penalty because the video freezes. The experience itself is therefore paramount for the viewer: ensuring they can watch their favourite sport without interruption is essential for retaining them and maintaining the reputation of the service provider. In 2017, for example, Eurosport had to reimburse customers in Germany and Austria €10 in compensation for technical problems when an outage hit a Bundesliga game. Given the thousands of customers keen to watch the game, it was a very costly mistake.
Dive into the data
Delivering live sports over the internet at scale inevitably brings a new set of challenges for service providers. Sports OTT providers must consider peak throughput and peak concurrency, not to mention the added issues around using geolocation data to personalise experiences and authentication.
The high levels of data per second, as well as requests per second, in live sports OTT can put pressure on the infrastructure, especially in the moments leading up to a live broadcast as everyone logs on to watch. Luckily, there is a fairly simple fix that provides the foundation for a successful infrastructure that can cope with demand, and ensures viewers aren’t forced to switch off.
The fix is centred on data. If an OTT provider has access to their data, they can easily foresee when they might have an influx of users, giving enough time to create the infrastructure and provide sufficient capacity. This can be solved by autoscaling groups, meaning that the provider can increase the threshold and cope with demand as capacity increases.
As the date for each event is fairly predictable, this is something all OTT providers must consider when broadcasting live over the internet. When something goes wrong, many providers automatically blame the Content Delivery Network (CDN), but actually it could be something as simple as the basic infrastructure and ensuring that providers are using the data they have available.
Finding the foundation
Ensuring the foundations for a successful infrastructure are laid requires an investment of both time and money, but by having this in place, sports OTT providers can ensure they have the right capacity to deal with high demand at scale. It’s a question of timing: companies can either heavily invest upfront, spending money on the infrastructure to ensure issues don’t arise; or, they can reinvest profits as they grow to increase scale. The latter option, however, means that companies could find themselves at capacity and in a situation where viewers are left frustrated and angry at a frozen stream.
With this strong foundation in place, live sports OTT providers will have the ability to deliver a smooth broadcast at scale, avoiding the fallout of a freeze or glitch, removing the incessantly long buffer time and keeping viewers engaged with the experience they would expect to receive. The title of man of the match is up for grabs, so providers need to execute live sports OTT in the right way, or risk falling out of the league.