2014 was the year during which the "Big Game" became the "Really Big Game." From the Super Bowl and Sochi Olympics kicking off the year, to the college football Bowl Season closing it out. One could hardly turn around in 2014 without hearing of another programmer boasting cutting-edge streaming coverage of tent-pole sporting events or unprecedented depth of exposure for previously hard-to-find games.
Live sports serve a dual function for programmers trying to expand their digital footprint. In addition to bringing significant numbers of viewers to ultra-premium, high-CPM ad inventory, live sports have also been deployed as an entry point - hooking new adopters and indoctrinating digital viewing habits.
Live sports are more likely than other digital video to be viewed across device platforms. While only 27% of all digital viewing occurs outside of desktop and laptop environments, 51% of live sports viewing is done either on smartphones, tablets, or over-the-top devices (over-the-top devices alone account for 34% of live sports viewing*).
Among FreeWheel clients, each successive quarter of 2014 brought a record volume of live sports streaming - with year-over-year growth of 245%. Only a month into 2015, we have already seen live streaming sports make headlines. The inaugural College Football Playoff broke cable ratings records while also smashing previous digital marks, and NBCUniversal offered an 11-hour digital stream of Super Bowl XLIX (including pre and post-game coverage as well as an episode of NBC’s "The Blacklist") that did not require viewers to log in.
With the return of March Madness on March 15th with Selection Sunday, it is certain that the close of Q1 2015 will reveal continued growth of live sports streaming, which will carry on in to the Spring.
Perhaps most importantly for the current pay-TV ecosystem, live sports serve as an entry point for TV Everywhere offerings. While programmers previously struggled to coax viewers into entering authentication credentials to access TV Everywhere, 'must-have' live events have finally brought viewers over the authentication wall; authenticated TV Everywhere posted a whopping 368% year-over-year growth in Q3 2014.
Instead of only watching live events once authenticated, viewers are enjoying the rich on-demand TV Everywhere libraries - on-demand viewing accounted for 44% of authenticated viewing in Q3 2014, up from 24% in Q4 2013. **
NBCUniversal has been a leader in the industry with the NBC Sports Live Extra offering and is planning to stream more than 2,500 live events in 2015. Most recently, during the Super Bowl XLIX weekend, the NBC Sports Live Extra app was downloaded more than 500,000 times to bring the total downloads for the app to nearly 12 million since it launched following the 2012 London Olympics. NBC Sports' Super Bowl stream also featured advertisements promoting its TV Everywhere services and the ease of authentication.
The explosive growth of live streaming also brings with it some unique challenges for programmers. Most obviously, the sheer number of concurrent viewers that large simulcasts attract can put a strain on delivery technology. Unlike typical digital programming, live sports viewership is heavily affected by factors that programmers have little to no control over (e.g. a game going into overtime).
Finally, and of paramount importance, programmers must be cognizant of user experience. As viewers typically remain online through several ad breaks when watching live sports, they will likely see the same ads several times unless the publisher sells to a variety of advertisers, as well as implements ad settings requiring a certain amount of creative rotation. Despite these challenges, programmers are racing to expand their offerings.
As the sporting events that fans love continue to grow in magnitude, savvy digital viewers will continue to seek out opportunities to watch outside the traditional living room. Programmers should seize this opportunity to hook viewers into TV Everywhere viewing, and be sure to prepare for the complexities of live delivery.
*FreeWheel Video Monetization Data 2014
**FreeWheel Video Monetization Data 2014