Exactly how many consumers will stream Super Bowl LI is the big unknown heading into Sunday, but Fox Sports says it’s doing what it can to ensure it will have ample headroom to deliver a smooth experience when the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons.
But Fox Sports also has history as its guide, as last year’s stream of Super Bowl 50, for example, drew 3.96 million unique viewers across laptops, desktops, tablets, connected TV devices and mobile phones.
Streaming growth for recent Super Bowls has been “pretty linear…but we think we’re going to see that start to accelerate” with this year’s game, Devin Poolman, SVP of digital platforms at Fox Sports, said.
Fox will offer a free, live stream of Super Bowl LI at FoxSportsGo.com, and the Fox Sports Go app for iOS, Android, Windows and Amazon tablets, Apple TV boxes, Android TV-powered devices, Fire TV players, Google Chromecasts, and the Xbox One console. Fox is also supplying the contribution feed to Verizon for the exclusive rights it has to stream Super Bowl LI to smartphones.
Poolman is reluctant to give a precise streaming figure that Fox Sports is anticipating for Super Bowl LI. “But we know we need to be able to handle a multiple of the streaming audience from last year…say in the 2x range,” Poolman said, adding that it’s “not inconceivable” that it could be in the range of 3x or 4x.
A recent survey from MGID (subscription required) found that about 16% of consumers plan to stream Super Bowl LI online, a number that rises to 23.2% of millennials.
“We can't just call it quits when we think we can handle the expected number,” he added. “We really need to prepare for larger than likely."
And Fox Sports is making plenty of preparations to help it stay well ahead of the streaming curve come Super Bowl Sunday.
For starters, Fox Sports will be relying on three content delivery network partners (Akamai, Level 3 Communications and Limelight Networks), rather than the two it typically uses (Akamai and Level 3) for authenticated TV Everywhere streams delivered via Fox Sports Go.
That, Poolman said, will give Fox additional dedicated and reserved bandwidth that will boost redundancy and overall capacity. “We’ve been very aggressive in terms of working with those CDN partners,” he said.
Fox Sports will also use a unique configuration for its Super Bowl live stream that is fundamentally less complicated than the streams it delivers for most events. Fox Sports has been testing this configuration for recent NFL playoff games and other events.
That more simplified approach is also being applied to Fox Sports’s decision to let local Fox TV affiliates insert local ads into the Super Bowl stream. Poolman said Fox Sports is simplifying that by taking advantage of some new capabilities from FreeWheel (the ad-tech firm owned by Comcast), Adobe and MLBAM that assists with the scheduling of those ads in each affiliate market.
To help with the scale required for this, Fox Sports is also putting in caching systems to help with the ad requests in the local affiliate markets. It’s also “pre-conditioning” the different versions of the ads with the programmer’s CDN partners ahead of time so that as much content as possible is already prepared and set to go. That unique workflow and this additional, coordinated work undertaken by the internal advertising teams will help to reduce the risk and improve the delivery of that streamed video, Poolman explained.
And, for Super Bowl LI, Fox Sports will also keep a tighter rein on the bit-rates of its HD streams.
Typically, Fox’s adaptive bit rate for some platforms support up to 5 Mbps at 60 frames per second to produce a 720p signal. For Sunday’s game, Fox will still deliver the game in 720p, but will set the bit-rate collar at 3.5 Mbps and 30 frames per second.
Poolman reasons that the approach will make the last-mile traffic more efficient, as it’s likely that multiple viewers in a neighborhood will be streaming the game at the same time.
“There was a decision made to hold down the top bit rate because it will actually improve the quality for all viewers as opposed to those that are on specific platforms,” Poolman said.
Finally, it will be all-hands-on-deck for Fox Sports and its tech partners during the game. They’ll all be paying close attention to operations dashboard and be ready to adjust and work around any hiccups that might come up “to make sure we're delivering the best experience throughout the game,” Poolman said.
Fox Sports also has some other data to reference ahead of the game. Fox Sports Go’s most-watched authenticated event in the history of the app was World Series game seven between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians on Nov. 2, 2016, with an average minute viewership of 343,865. Fox Sports Go’s stream 2017 NFC Wildcard game produced an average minute audience of 363,058 viewers, and 2017 NFC Championship Game pulled in 14.3 million minutes of digital video ad content time viewed.