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Centre for the action: How datacentres are supporting the rise of sports streaming

For an odd year, when there are normally fewer high profile sports events, 2019 has been blessed with a full summer of sport – and there’s still more to come.

The Cricket World Cup, Women’s Football World Cup and Rugby World Cup have all fallen in 2019, on top of the annual regulars of the Premier League, UEFA Champions League, Wimbledon and the Tour de France. The Women's World Cup in particular has attracted significant attention, with record-breaking viewing figures for the Lionesses’ run to the semi-finals.

All of these major events highlight both the opportunities and challenges that exist for sports rights holders such as UEFA, the ICC and World Rugby. As much as there is obvious interest, these rights holders are under increasing pressure when competing for consumer eyeballs against other forms of entertainment, such as social media and e-sports platforms. They therefore need to deliver content to viewers in the most reliable, timely and accessible ways.

While sponsorship, merchandising and ticket sales are still hugely significant revenue streams, media rights have been the main source of revenue growth for sporting bodies. The Premier League is the best example of this, having recently signed a three-year rights deal worth over £1.5bn per season in the UK. Amazingly this is only for a subset of the 380 games played each year.

Shift to streaming

It’s fair to say that sport has, until relatively recently, felt less of an impact of the switch to online streaming. It’s considered by many to be the last bastion of live TV – and for good reason. Sport broadcasts still bring in large aggegrate audiences that drive TV advertising and team sponsorship revenues. Equally, the reliability of traditional broadcasting means it is still the champion choice for the fast-paced action, split-second decisions and drama of underdogs versus giants that come with live sport. Changing viewer habits, and an insatiable demand for content has seen an increase in over the top (OTT) viewing. With this has seen a growing number of digital players looking for a slice of the sports streaming pie. Social media juggernauts like Facebook are taking exploratory steps into the live sporting arena through partnerships with the likes of WWE wrestling. Amazon is also set to stream Premier League football for the first time this December alongside its ATP streaming. We’re now seeing rights holders like Formula 1 and the ATP setting up platforms to go direct to consumers, similar to the model seen in America where both the NFL and MLB have their own networks. The governing bodies of certain sports have identified that direct relationships with their fans, allowing greater understanding of their requirements, are becoming key to their futures.

Traditional broadcasters are not down and out, but the rise of video streaming services has no doubt changed the way we perceive television. Many conventional players are clearly mindful of this and have adapted their offerings, investing in and launching their own OTT platforms to keep up with an ever-changing industry. Sky, for example, has launched its Sky Go and Sky Q apps, and BT once again streamed the Champions and European League finals through its YouTube channel in a bid to attract viewers.

This shift to streaming presents huge opportunities for sports rights holders on a global scale. As well as providing a platform to build a direct relationship with fans by delivering customised, personal content, streaming opens up a whole new audience. Sports leagues and franchises in the West have rightly identified African and Asian markets as ones with enormous growth potential, but often these markets are filled with ‘mobile-first’ or ‘mobile-only’ consumers. Having a reliable streaming platform is vital in making these audiences accessible to rights holders, and in turn, their sponsors.

The can’t-miss experience

The challenge for those exploring the opportunities of streaming, whether a traditional broadcaster or a digital-first player, becomes one of reliability and maintaining trust. User experience needs to be at the forefront of any OTT service to avoid customer churn. Ultimately, if the user experience isn’t up to scratch, due to buffering or poor picture quality, customers could stop using the service – and according to research, 53% of them do.

Streaming is a trade-off between reliability, latency and quality, with all three being vital for sports. How then, can rights holders capitalise on the reach of OTT platforms when sports content simply has to work?

Effectively delivering OTT content requires having access to a community of ISPs and content delivery networks (CDNs). Highly connected datacentres are the home of these connected communities, acting as the hub to bring everything together, from production to OTT delivery.

As OTT streaming blossoms, and new technologies such as 5G and UHD place more demand on networks, sports rights holders can also deal with increased traffic by scaling into the cloud and getting access to connectivity services during bandwidth-intensive events. Interxion has a fantastic pedigree when it comes to helping some of the largest content platforms and sports organisations to deliver streaming content with high levels of user experience.

As content providers become more confident about the reliability of live streaming, we will see more examples of major sporting events being broadcast online. This will give larger audiences access to live events and give broadcasters and rights holders a platform to deliver services globally. The confidence in reliability needed to make this happen will come from being housed in a highly connected datacentre.

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