A key lesson of sports on OTT: first, do no lag

Football
Charlie Neiman, head of sports partnerships at Amazon Prime Video, brimmed with optimism about the potential for Amazon to offer Prime subscribers appointment viewing. (Getty Images)

As sports leagues, TV networks and video distributors try to rewrite the playbook for broadcasting games as the entire business moves to an online future, Amazon’s groundbreaking deal with the National Football League to stream Thursday Night Football offers a couple of lessons.

One is that if it all possible, it helps to be the NFL or Amazon.

Another is that while moving to online distribution is both a business imperative a creative opportunity, the real-time experience of watching your team play somebody else’s will remain paramount.

Many other things remain still in play, to judge from a session on “The Future of Sports Distribution” held online Monday at the Stream TV Sports Summit.

“The plainest thing that you can see is viewership on traditional platforms—you know, cable, satellite—is really shrinking,” Ben Grad, senior vice president and head of content strategy and acquisition for FuboTV, told moderator Andrew Bucholtz, a journalist with the sports-news sites Awful Announcing and The Comeback.

The Amazon deal stands as a major milestone in that march away from traditional pay TV. Charlie Neiman, head of sports partnerships at Amazon Prime Video, brimmed with optimism about the potential for Amazon to offer Prime subscribers appointment viewing.

“The consistency of having Thursday Night Football on Amazon every week is going to be great for us,” he said. “We will see numbers that are going to be more in line with what you’d call traditional linear ratings.”

And this audience will be all at once, not the on-demand viewership of a lot of Prime Video content: “You have to watch it live,” Nieman said.   

Blake Stuchin, NFL vice president for digital media business development, lauded Amazon for such innovations as streaming games on its gaming-centric Twitch service and providing alternate teams of announcers, including the first all-female broadcast booth in NFL history.

But, he added, that won’t end the NFL’s tradition of making each team’s games available on local TV too. “It’s really important to us that those games continue to be there,” Stuchin said.

OTA broadcast doesn’t offer the technological possibilities of OTT streaming, but it does deliver in-game action about as close to real-time as the laws of physics allow.

As a conversation that preceded this panel highlighted, “live” on streaming can be a few beats off of what people see on traditional TV—and, therefore, in sports banter on social apps.

“One of the biggest problems that we are seeing is the latency of OTT versus social media,” said Thierry Fautier, a vice president at the video-delivery services firm Harmonic, during an inteview with FierceVideo publisher Kevin Gray.

Fautier cited delays of 20 to 30 seconds in streaming of the Super Bowl in January (the livestreaming tech firm Phoenix clocked them at an average of 44 seconds), adding that this lag still improved on performance from two to three years ago.

It’s also unclear what business model will fit smaller sports and services. Grad noted that Fubo will launch its own sportsbook later this year, a big business-model differentiation, and was also looking to sign more exclusive deals with leagues outside the U.S.

He then offered a don’t-try-this-at-home warning to sports leagues thinking of launching direct-to-consumer offerings. He pointed to WWE’s attempt to go DTC, which the pro wrestling league shelved in favor of carriage on NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service: “Basically, they hung it up.”

Grad’s fellow panelist Jean-Luc Jezouin, however, challenged that ruling. The senior vice president for business development at NAGRA Sports put in a pitch for his firm’s sports-as-a-service tools for sports teams and leagues—“we give them the ability to be connected with their fans”—and noted how much opportunity exists for better coverage among what he described as some 800 sports played around the world.

“792 of them are totally underserved by TV and brands,” Jezouin said. “We will see a lot more choice in the future.”