It’s clear from the skyrocketing number of viewers watching NCAA Division I tourney online that streaming of live sports is only going up from here. NCAA March Madness Live app, managed by Turner Sports in partnership with CBS Sports and the NCAA, generated an all-time record 69.1mln live streams through the first Sunday of the tournament, an increase of +24% over last year. “We aren’t seeing any real cannibalization of linear because of digital or vice versa. We see people consume more because this great tournament is everywhere a fan is,” said Hania Poole, vp, gm NCAA Digital at Turner Sports. Latency is always important with online streaming, but it’s even more critical with sports. When Poole stepped into her position four years ago, she estimates that video was behind a minute to a minute and a half on some devices. “Now I feel like it’s shortened to about 30 seconds. Maybe 45,” she said. TV has set the benchmark for streaming, Akamai CTO John Bishop told CFX. “There’s always been that 45-60 second behind line. That’s just been kind of the nature of the Internet. When you look at why, it’s largely because the pieces were fragile and immature in the supply chain. Every little element that was touching a lot of the bits created its own little safety net—and safety net in our world means buffer,” Bishop said, adding that as Akamai has expanded its investments the system has become more cohesive. “We put a line in the sand a few years ago to say let’s cut the gap from 45 seconds down to sub 20. Last year was the first year we started seeing some line of sight that it was possible. I think this year we’re getting better than television on the OTT side. In some cases, we can get a signal faster to you now than a cable TV infrastructure will.”
That’s always been the goal—to get to the point where there’s parity between linear and digital. Bishop believes streaming has achieved that already in resolution and audience size. “It’s no longer a scary proposition to see millions of people concurrently come in to join a basketball game or an episodic or a debate,” he said. And on resolution, the Internet is starting to surpass TV with tech such as UHD, VR and 4K. Indeed, the March Madness app will offer enhanced VR games powered by Intel. At CSG, one big focus with its Ascendon platform is monetization of digital services. With that monetization goal in mind, CSG is keen to improve delivery of sports content as it moves into more true OTT scenarios, said Sean Casey, director of product management at CSG. ESPN is among its clients, with CSG working with the programmer on both premium sports content and premium media to be delivered directly to the consumer. Casey agrees with Bishop that delivery is getting even better, helped in part by adaptive bit rates. “It tests the user’s network speed and delivers a stream that’s best suited for that speed,” he said. “Instead of trying to deliver a big screen experience on your iPhone, it’s going to see if you’re in a poor coverage area and provide a lower quality experience but one that doesn’t buffer.” Back to March Madness, this year marks the first that Turner has used iStreamPlanet as the streaming provider for the series—a tip to Turner’ acquiring a majority stake in the company in 2015. It previously had used MLBAM. In Turner’s command center, Poole and team monitor how video is performing with the help of video optimization service Conviva, looking at how viewers are experiencing the video, network quality, what bitrate is being served, etc. Anecdotally, she’s taken note of fans posting photos on social media of them watching a game one big screen with a line of devices standing next to it showing the NCAA March Madness Live app. While most streaming is focused on mobile, it’s worth noting that March Madness is a different animal with so much viewing taking place during work hours. With that in mind, Turner Sports updated the desktop viewing experience this year. “We completely redesigned it and took it out of flash and made it into an HTML5 player. I think we’re one of the first live sports platforms to do that,” Poole said. “We made it responsive so it sizes to whatever setting your browser is on, and it has a shot chart that you can expand and some other cool features.” Turner also expanded this year to 15 platforms for the tourney from 13, adding a skill on Amazon’s Alexa (its first foray into voice) and joining its first game console through Xbox.