The wide, wide world of sports may have gotten too wide for television, as sports fans log on to watch some of their favorite sporting events in cyberspace.
This week millions of college basketball fans and casual office pool betters will tune in to see every slam dunk, three-point play and bracket-busting upset that makes up the annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
At the same time thousands of baseball aficionados will try to consume as many Major League Baseball spring training games as possible in an effort to see what kind of shape Barry Bonds is in or whether Boston Red Sox rookie phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka looks good enough to draft for their fantasy team.
And all the action from CSTV/CBS’s NCAA March Madness and baseball’s MLB.tv services can be accessed with just a click of a mouse.
Cable sports networks like CSTV, ESPN and TNT — along with several major professional sports leagues — are increasingly offering live sports content via the Internet as broadband technology, with its increased bandwidth capacity and fast speeds, improves the quality of video over the Web.
While network executives say watching a Serena Williams power serve or a Tiger Woods golf putt on a computer screen will never replace the majestic experience of watching those athletic endeavors on a large, high-definition television screen, live events on the Web allow fans to access even more sports on a new and growing platform.
Whereas five years ago the Web was used by sports fans primarily as a text-based outlet for up-to-the minute scores and news, as well as the occasional, 10-second video highlight, the Internet now streams thousands of live videos from some of the most popular and highly-rated sports programming on television:
- ESPN offers hundreds of live sports events ranging from college basketball and football games to NASCAR Busch Series auto racing.
- Along with 37 live streamed NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games, CSTV has offered more than 18,000 live college sporting events online since September.
- World Championship Sports Network streams Olympic-based domestic and international events and tournaments from such sports as track and field and ice skating.
- Turner Sports last summer streamed early round action from several Professional Golfers’ Association events, including the PGA Championship tournament.
Professional sports leagues such as the National Basketball Association and MLB are also reaching out to their hard-core fans via broadband video by simulcasting their respective “NBA League Pass” and “MLB Extra Innings” live game out-of-market packages online.
The National Hockey League and the National Football League plan to offer similar Web packages for “NHL Center Ice” and “NFL Sunday Ticket.”
Why has the Internet become such a hotbed for live sports programming?
For one, there are more sports fans on the Web.
Currently, 53 million households have broadband access, up from only 10 million in 2001, according to Pricewaterhouse Coopers. That number is expected to jump to 73.4 million by 2010.
According to Scott Bailey, vice president and general manager of business operations for Turner Sports New Media, many of those households are seeking quality broadband video content. As a result, networks like ESPN and CSTV are reaching out to audiences by offering programming they can’t find on television.
“Once you start to gain critical mass and your audience falls into that category, you’re seeing companies like ourselves that are willing to take our core competencies and flip it to an audience that can view it in a manner that’s the same standard that they’re expecting when they go home and watch the broadcast on TV,” he said.
CSTV chairman Brian Bedol added that sports fans look to the Web for the latest scores, sports stories and statistics, so it’s only natural they would seek live events from the Internet as well.
“I think what’s big is that sports is transitioning from a business that’s built around big events on broadcast and cable to one that’s built on much greater use of overall media by sports fans,” Bedol said. “It’s gone from a once- or twice-a-season to a 24/7 connection. As long as technology continues to evolve, I think things like mobile technology and the quality of wireless streaming will grow substantially.”
One thing that has allowed live Internet video content to thrive is improved picture quality. Keith Ritter, president of NHL Inter-Active Cyber Enterprises, said the improved video transmission speeds have made watching live sports via the Web a tolerable experience for fans.
While broadband video cannot completely duplicate the picture quality of a big-screen television, Ritter said the picture isn’t bad — and it’s only going to improve over time.
The NHL is currently testing distribution of its cable and satellite Center Ice out-of-market game package on the Web and could make it available to any hockey fan with a high-speed Internet connection before the end of the season.
“For us, watching hockey with a 50 [kilobyte per second] dialup modem is impossible; at 300 kbps it’s serviceable; and 700 kbps, where we’re currently streaming hockey games today, looks pretty good,” he said. “But as we get into higher and higher bandwidth to the home, hockey is going to look even better.”
In terms of content, CSTV’s Bedol said broadband allows networks to provide live games and events that often can’t be offered on television.
“Live games on broadband fulfill the desire of sports fans to follow their team and their sport, and sports in a very personal discipline,” he said.
Indeed, traditional broadcast networks like CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox, or even sports-dedicated networks like ESPN can only offer a handful of live events in a limited channel capacity environment.
But the Web allows hardcore fans of a particular sport or team to access live content that otherwise would not be seen on TV, Bedol said.
While broadcast and cable networks frequently air live Notre Dame sports events because of the school’s popularity and ratings draw, it’s still a small percentage of the school’s overall sports offerings. But CSTV, through its Notre Dame channel on CSTV.com, showcases hundreds of the school’s less popular sports like baseball and volleyball that the university’s alumni crave.
“We take a very personalized approach to sports programming and say, how we can connect the fan to the team and game that they want; and that’s where broadband really has power,” he said.
Bedol said the majority of CSTV.com Web users are technologically-advanced 25- to 34-year-old college graduates looking to keep abreast of their school’s athletic endeavors. But he added that high school kids and parents are also drawn to the site’s $99-per-month CSTV XXL service.
“It skews a bit younger, but one of the things that distinguishes college sports is that it’s cross-generational — we have a lot of subscribers who are high school athletes who don’t have an opportunity to see regular-season college baseball or hockey at a high level,” he said. “We have some aspirational young athletes, we have parents that follow individual teams, but the biggest bucket are alumni who use sports to stay connected.
ESPN senior director of new media programming Jeff Cravens said young men make up the majority of ESPN360 users who have streamed live college football, college basketball and other events over the past few years.
The network said it has seen a 346% growth in broadband usage for its Web version of college football out-of-market package since 2004, and a 48% growth from 2005 to 2006 for its Internet-based ESPN Full Court college basketball package — although he would not provide specific figures.
“Our demo is pretty young — they’re early adapters and they are mobile,” said Cravens.
Indeed, network executives say the technology allows event providers to give fans an opportunity to watch live events that take place outside of traditional primetime or late night hours at their office desks or on the road without the aid of a TV. Whether it’s a World Cup soccer game taking place halfway across the word or early-round PGA tournament golf action, fans can access those events right at their office desks — so long as their bosses don’t know or don’t mind.
Turner Sports drew nearly 1 million users last August to its owned and operated PGA.com site for live Thursday and Friday afternoon coverage of the PGA Championship golf tournament, said Bailey.
Turner, using CNN’s innovative Pipeline technology, offered four separate streams of tournament coverage. One stream featured TNT’s live broadcast of the event; a player-Cam followed a designated group of four golfers chosen by the network; a third stream offered live press conferences and player profiles; and a fourth, video-on-demand stream offered golf instructions from a PGA instructor.
Of course, the biggest office-viewing event is the “March Madness” college basketball event. Bedol said CSTV and CBS drew an aggregate 5 million streams over the first two weeks of the 2006 college basketball tournament — most of that coming during the first two days of the tournament when many of the games are played during office hours.
Bedol believes this year’s free broadband tournament offering will match or surpass that total. DirecTV offers the television tournament package, the $69 “Mega March Madness.”
“I think you’re going to see it do as well and possibly better — there are possibly more broadband connections now and I think that people enjoyed the product,” Bedol said. “Hopefully we’ll build on that.”
REVENUE VS. MARKETING
While CSTV and CBS’s advertiser-supported March Madness event is free to consumers, other networks and leagues are charging monthly or yearly fees to access live sports on the Web.
ESPN charges $109 for its nearly 200-game, GamePlan college-football broadband package, and offers a half-year, $75 broadband package for its Full Court college-hoops service, which offers 35 games per week. Live sports events on the network’s ESPN360 service is free to consumers, but cable operators pay an undisclosed licensing fee to allow its subscribers access to the gated site.
With regard to the pro leagues, Major League Baseball — which is close to securing a seven-year, exclusive DirecTV distribution deal for its Extra Innings out-of-market package — charges $89 for that package’s broadband companion.
And the NFL and the NHL are expected to charge an incremental fee for their respective broadband out-of-market packages.
DirecTV and NFL officials would not confirm plans to offer a broadband service to complement its popular Sunday Ticket, but sources close to the two parties said it could launch such a service as early as this fall. DirecTV acquired the rights to provide remote access to games and content via broadband or wireless devices as part of its five-year, $3.5 billion deal for exclusive rights to Sunday Ticket.
The NHL also hasn’t announced a launch date for its broadband service, but the league said it would open the broadband feed to anyone for a fee — most likely mirroring the $129 cost of the NHL Center Ice linear service. Customers who already subscribe to Center Ice via satellite or digital cable would receive a rebate.
While Ritter said the league hopes to generate incremental revenue from the broadband service, it’s more a complementary service to coverage from its national TV rights holders Versus and NBC, as well as the various regional sports networks.
“I think we live in a world where people want to access content however they want to access it,” said Ritter, adding that close to 80% of traffic on NHL.com is accessed via broadband connection.
The NBA is the only league that provides its out-of-market broadband service free to subscribers to its $179 cable and satellite service.
Still, not every network is ready to make the financial investment in broadband technology for what is still an uncertain financial return.
Rather than build the infrastructure for the streaming of live sports events, Tennis Channel chairman and CEO Ken Solomon said the network is talking to established Web content distributors like Yahoo and AOL to help stream live early round matches from its French Open tennis tournament coverage next year.
“The real costs come in with regards to bandwidth — no one is getting hugely wealthy on this today,” he said. “Live streaming is very expensive — there’s a very significant cost with putting up six courts from the French Open via broadband.”
He added, “We want to be able to have a partner that already has traffic and flow and has an audience base that understands how this works going in.”
As broadband video distribution and usage grows, ESPN’s Cravens said a robust advertising model could also deliver significant financial returns to distributors.
“I believe marketers are very interested in getting into that space,” he said. “People who experience broadband live events are generally more active and leaning-forward consumers, so marketers are trying to engage those people.”
“As marketers and the programming evolve, it definitely will be an additive platform to someone who will advertise on television or look exclusively to the broadband medium,” Cravens said.
But not everyone is looking to broadband to be a huge revenue generator.
Versus president Gavin Harvey sees his network’s live event broadband coverage as a tool that benefits cable operators, as well as the network. The Comcast-owned cable outlet is planning to offer live coverage of undercard fights leading up to network coverage of main event fights.
“What we’re trying to figure out is how to program all screens to the benefit of our primary distributors,” said Harvey. “To program all screens, the best of what we have goes first on our [linear channel] air. Additional parts of the animal, like the undercard of a boxing match that do not make it to air but are important to hard core fans, will more likely be streamed on the Web site.”
A MARQUEE FUTURE?
While today’s live broadband offerings are mostly secondary games not seen on traditional television, will we ever be able to watch marquee events like the World Series on the Web? ESPN’s Cravens said the video quality on the Web is only going to get better, which could open the doors for more high-profile content to migrate online.
“The quality of video today is the worst that it will ever be moving forward,” he said. “It’s only going to get better, as well as the online experience. As these platforms evolve, that’s going to move in ways that’s unimaginable.”
Still, Bedol says viewing events like the Super Bowl on a computer will never match the experience of watching the big game in your living room on your 53-inch, high-definition television.
“If you’re a sports fan, you would love to see a game in high-def on a big screen — I don’t think the computer broadband model in the near future will be a substitute for that,” he said. “I think you’ll begin to see a lot more services allow consumers to connect the Internet to their televisions and I think as the streams become higher quality, that becomes more of a viable business. But today it isn’t nearly the quality that people expect on television.”