Time to Get Real…Time

A push for “Zero Latency” fan engagement

Recently, the NBA announced a new multi-year deal with Microsoft targeted squarely at reimagining the digital fan experience. While Microsoft has been a major partner of the NFL since 2013, the NBA deal is at the forefront of where the sports world desperately needs to go.

The promise of this partnership is exciting: personalized viewing experiences, social sharing, gamification and perhaps even sports betting. I know I’m ready and the technology that will make true real-time streaming possible is ready to rock and roll.

The NFL deserves its props, of course. Nothing on the domestic sports sponsorship landscape matches the reach that an NFL sideline partnership delivers. The league’s TV ratings from the 2019 season reminded everyone that they indeed remain the king. However, while the shield reigns supreme in terms of audience size, the NBA has emerged as the primary agent of change among the major sports properties.

A critical question though is this: Can the business model that keeps valuations of major sports properties so high support or make room for streaming in real time, thus enabling new forms of engagement?

What is Live?

Let me be clear. I am not referring to live viewing in the sense we normally think of it, such as watching via a cable or satellite subscription or even streaming via a bundled streaming service (e.g. YouTube TV). That is hardly watching in real time. If you think you’re watching that game on, say, FiOS as it takes place, you’re not. At best you’re 7-13 seconds behind before the broadcast hits your screen. That is what is referred to as “latency” in live broadcasting. If you’re on DirecTV or Dish, you can add, on average, four to five seconds to that.

Have you proudly joined the growing mass of people that have cut the cable cord and view content through a patchwork of streaming services? Full disclosure, I have.

If you stream NFL Thursday night games on Amazon Prime, there’s a good chance you’ll be more than a minute behind your neighbor one apartment over that is watching on Xfinity.

My personal view is that you’re not watching “live” if the delay between when it happens and when you see it is more than the standard broadcast delay (approximately seven seconds).

Intuitively, you would think that streaming could deliver live programming with near-zero latency, right? And, it can. The technology exists to deliver live programming with less than a half-second of latency. Companies like Chicago-based Phenix and Limelight Networks out of Arizona, have put real-time streaming into practice. Phenix streaming enabled Your Call Football to create a near-zero latency user experience where fans could actually vote for the plays that would be run in a live football game. I should note that streaming concurrently to audiences the size of the NFL’s linear viewing audience may still be a few years off, but the potential is there.

Why does low-latency matter?

In a nutshell, because true fan engagement, including sports prop betting (proposition bet–a wager on what will or will not happen during an event) needs to happen in near-real time and be delivered consistently regardless of geography, device or internet provider. With viewers being increasingly mobile, finding new ways to engage with fans; giving them a reason to stop in, also increases.

If social sharing, gamification, and wagering during live sporting events are to be reality, viewers will need to receive and engage with that content at the same time or in close approximation. While I could argue that the general broadcast delay that is employed by live content distributors to avoid getting harassed by the FCC is a concept worthy of reexamination, I will save that for another day (and another rant) and we can accept for now that leagues, teams and their broadcast partners aren’t quite ready to remove their ability to prevent questionable material from being heard or seen.

Socializing with friends, brands, commentators and even athletes during the same broadcast can only work if the content is being received in a consistent time frame. That cannot happen with the fragmented way different people view.

To be clear, I recognize that the financial model that facilitates so much of what we love is based on media companies paying significant sums of money for exclusive rights to distribute content of properties (rights holders). And I respect the right to do what is necessary to maximize the return on these often sizable investments.

As Deloitte pointed out in their 2019 white paper, “The future of sports broadcasting: Enhancing digital fan engagement,” there are a few key focus areas:

  • Provide high-quality viewing access to fans, where they are based and on their preferred device;
  • Establish social interaction points for use during viewership;
  • Developing technologies that allow fans to select key elements of their stream—AR and VR enhancements, announcer choices, and camera angle options; and
  • Exploring new revenue streams through gambling partnerships and sub-segmented offers that allow flexibility to choose not just the games–but the specific parts of the game–they wish to watch.

Making shifts now–which may mean some near-term reductions in revenue generation–is a better scenario than having the entire house collapse on itself because we refuse to address changing consumer behavior and continue distributing sports as we currently do.

First however, something needs to give.

Let’s Play Along

Speaking for a tech-savvy, slightly–just slightly!–younger and more mobile sports fan, say you want to call a play in the Pro Bowl. You want to place a few prop bets during a MLB game. You want to predict the plays called in a college football game and compete for cash and prizes against others. You want to form daily fantasy leagues with friends and compete in real time during the NBA Playoffs. And if you can’t? Your interest will wane.

However, to do all (or any) of these things, you need to be viewing in real time, or very close.

Seeing it live is only half of the battle. The other is that others are viewing at the same time you are, with no more than a few seconds differential.

Currently, this is impossible, whether I’m watching from my couch, at the airport or sitting in a Buffalo Wild Wings (a guy can dream during a pandemic, right?).

The need to bring all of these consumption points into alignment is growing and will only continue to do so.

Shrinking cable subscription rolls, particularly among sports viewers, is all the evidence needed to rethink the entire system and build up a new model that can support advertising and enable engagement. (And don’t think burying your head in the sand until our sports hiatus is over — expectations are that cord-cutting will only accelerate during the Coronavirus shutdown.)

No one is going to wax nostalgic for the days of 13+-second latency. No one will miss hearing their neighbors cheer five seconds before they watch their team score a touchdown. No one will miss getting texts about their alma mater knocking off their rival when the game clock of the “live” broadcast they’re watching still reads :12 to play.

They will, however, be thrilled at the new world of opportunity that exists.

A world that exists because we opened up a whole new way to engage with them–our fans–on their time. In. Real. Time.

Brand and partnership marketing executive David Paro is a recognized sports business leader with a reputation for creating innovative, brand-building partnership programs. Paro serves as the President of Deep Alliance, a firm he founded in 2001 to provide companies of all sizes with high-level sponsorship expertise and branding services. During his time with Deep Alliance, Paro has managed sponsorship and activation for major global brands, including McDonald’s and Staples, while also providing an array of services to mid-sized companies and startups.