Bill Wohnoutka

Will streaming of sports events overtake traditional broadcast TV?

A look at last summer’s global soccer tournament

In 2014, online and mobile viewership for the global soccer tournament in Brazil was reported for the first time: 280 million. In four short years, Conviva reports that number rose to 393 million streams of matches from 59 unique streaming apps in the first week alone, which is already more than the number of streams during the entire duration of the 2014 tournament. This staggering increase points to the central role the internet plays in video broadcasting.

How did the internet stack up to one of the largest events on the planet?

Today, the internet is a fundamental platform for all content, and network service providers (NSPs) are facing intense pressures to perform. Given this rapid rise in large event viewership over the internet and the rise of 4K HDR broadcasts, inevitably the question will be: can the internet handle the next big event?

Here’s the thing. The internet is one of the most resilient infrastructures out there. NSPs are constantly investing in their networks and technologies to build adequate redundancies and rapid recovery fail safes for network events like unforeseen traffic spikes, fiber cuts, power failures and vandalism. If the success of the tournament streams is any indication, our world’s networked infrastructure did just fine, save for a few brief streaming hiccups.

What changed in four years?

It’s important to take note of the significant changes that occurred in terms of broadcast and viewership in just four short years. First, viewers’ data allowances have grown substantially since 2014. That means their ability to stream to a mobile device or internet-connected TV is not only much easier to do, but also provides for a higher quality experience. 

Second, the content provider landscape is vastly different. Four years ago, it was a lot harder to find legal streams of live games if you didn’t already subscribe to a cable or satellite TV package. What was a fairly monopolistic landscape of one or two broadcasters per country in 2014 has become a veritable menagerie of options thanks to OTT providers like Hulu, fuboTV, Sling TV, DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue, YouTube TV, BBC iPlayer, ITV and many more around the globe. Viewers for this year’s soccer tournament were much more spread out, which means that despite the exponential rise in total online viewership, the traffic levels during even the most peak hours were still manageable. And let’s not forget that for many countries, those peak hours happened during off-peak times in other world regions, which helped in providing smoother traffic flow.

Tangentially, the U.S. men’s soccer team failed to make the tournament, something that hadn’t happened since 1986. Many speculated the team’s absence would be a blow to viewership, and with numbers saying TV viewership from the U.S. had dropped about 44 percent from 2014 in the first week of the tournament, rightfully so. However, OTT companies reported record-breaking viewership and content delivery networks saw a boon in traffic and customers. While total viewership may be down (those numbers are still unreported), it’s clear that the online contingent is thriving.

An NSP’s view of the event

CenturyLink, one of the world’s largest networking companies, had the arduous task of backhauling video feeds of the tournament from Russia to enable global broadcasting, either via traditional linear broadcast platforms, such as Fox, TV Azteca, RCN and Caracol, or OTT platforms. For North America OTT providers, CenturyLink carried 20 Gbps of JPEG, 4K and encoded IP content from Moscow to the U.S., where the feed was replicated and distributed to all approved providers.

Among its CDN customers, CenturyLink recorded a nearly doubling of traffic traversing its network during matches. But as stated earlier, many of these spikes occurred during off-peak times, and the overall traffic wasn’t concentrated on one provider, but rather dispersed among many. So while the tournament saw substantial growth in the number of total online viewers, they were more dispersed, allowing for easier delivery.

Traditional broadcast TV still king of live sports…for now

They say live sports is the anchor for traditional linear TV, and provided the rough estimates we’re seeing around the number of viewers who watched last summer’s global soccer tournament via traditional linear feeds, they’d be right. However, with the rapid rise of online viewership for the event this year, it’s clear OTT video is establishing itself as an important part of the live sports broadcast mix. That means it’s incumbent on network and content providers to work together to ensure not only the ability to manage this upward trajectory of traffic, but also maintain (or improve quality) of the feeds. Because who knows what 2022 will bring, and we need to be ready.