Industry Outlook is a regular Data Center Journal Q&A series that presents expert views on market trends, technologies and other issues relevant to data centers and IT.
This week, Industry Outlook asks Richard Craig-McFeely about the technologies and challenges associated with live sports streaming as well as the data center’s role. Richard is strategy & marketing director, digital media, at Interxion, leading the company’s strategy, business development and marketing activities in this segment. He has worked in the media business for over 20 years and focuses on enabling content owners, broadcasters and service providers to maximize their opportunities in the fast-moving media sector. Importantly, Richard brings domain expertise in live events based on experience with several large sports properties.
Industry Outlook: Why is sports broadcasting is moving to live streaming?
Richard Craig-McFeely: Live sports continue to drive the largest aggregate audiences, and hence they attract many types of platforms willing to monetize this valuable content. They’ve traditionally been the large private and public broadcasters in any country with the technical and financial resources to play the game. Advances in online video technology have made online streaming a viable option, and although broadcast still remains the principle platform for live sports, online streaming offers a number of unique benefits.
Traditional sports broadcasting currently dominates because many of the largest sports organizations have committed to working directly with broadcasters in long-term deals. These deals are often over 10-year terms in the U.S., whereas European sports deals tend to last 3–5 years. And these long-term deals are supported by the historical reliability and scale of the existing broadcast infrastructure.
But the sports-broadcasting world is changing fast. Apart from the fact that virtual and augmented reality, as well as other technology in the works, benefit from an over-the-top (OTT) streaming environment, the transition of sports to live streaming is occurring for three main reasons. The first is fan behavior, which is driven by the consumer shift to anything “Internet.” We’re now all familiar with social media, video, taxi services, food delivery, banking and all sorts of services through our mobile devices, so why not sports?
The second reason is the ability to customize live sports content, which leads to better personal experiences. The technology exists to combine video and data on the basis of personal preferences, such as which football team, tennis player, golfer or F1 driver you support. The integration of social media with personal content is extremely powerful, especially when tracked.
The third benefit, then, is the direct relationship that can be developed with audiences, all driven by custom content, social media and merchandising. One of the major reasons why Amazon owns the ATP and U.S. Open tennis rights in the U.K. is to sell to affluent tennis fans, and we can certainly expect more of the same from Amazon and other platforms.
IO: What’s necessary for distributors to deliver high-quality content across a wide array of media around the world in real time?
RCM: All live sports depend on excellent connectivity, but it becomes particularly crucial for OTT streamed sports. The successful delivery of a live event requires a community of connectivity partners that all reside in a highly connected content hub. Carriers are needed for high-quality video contribution from event venues, while content-delivery networks (CDNs) and Internet service providers (ISPs) are needed for delivering content to fans on their favorite devices. These highly connected content hubs provide flexibility in the choice of connectivity partners, operational excellence for risk-averse valuable sports and an overall quality end-user experience.
IO: What challenges does this trend of online sports streaming present, and how can content-distribution platforms overcome these obstacles?
RCM: The biggest challenges relate to replicating the live sports experience that’s delivered by traditional broadcasters for massive audiences. Importantly, the global CDN capacity is currently unable to support hundreds of millions of concurrent live streams, which is the size of the audience that the Olympics or FIFA World Cup generate; the global CDN capacity will only support tens of millions. This challenge will only be temporary, however, as CDN technology advances alongside the network developments of large content platforms, which are increasingly deploying edge infrastructure.
End-user experience is a crucial metric for the success of any OTT service, and it’s absolutely essential for live sporting events. A poor user experience would turn fans away, removing any chance for a sports rights holder to monetize a live-streaming event.
IO: What qualities must a data center provider possess to offer value in this market?
RCM: All hyperscale OTT services, including major sports, are delivered from highly connected data centers that exhibit the following characteristics: connected communities of carriers, CDNs and ISPs; operational excellence; domain expertise; and a solid understanding of the demands associated with streaming live events.
We’ve discussed these matters in detail, but it’s important to reiterate how important it is to deliver on these characteristics, both reliably and repeatedly, for true success in online live sports streaming.
IO: Finally, do the technologies and facilities that deliver sports streaming have other applications—particularly in emergency and other mission-critical communications?
RCM: A very good question! The focus of sports production on low latency and high redundancy matches the requirements for other network-oriented applications. The main differences are that sports often only need the network for a limited time, the threshold for video-quality issues is low and there’s an underlying need to reliably monetize expensive sports rights. Networks for live sports production often include three layers of redundancy (fibre, satellite and open Internet) under constant monitoring, but with the need to bring these services up and down as required. Think of the 20 or so globally diverse events of Formula 1. Sports fans expect the same video quality regardless of the event location—especially for those paying expensive subscriptions fees. All of the above is driven by the need for sports owners and their rights holders to monetize their resources in their different ways.