June 25, 2016

Let the NFL streaming battles begin: AT&T brings live streaming to basic Sunday Ticket plan

Screen shot of DirecTV Sunday Ticket app for iPad

Screen shot of DirecTV Sunday Ticket app for iPad

If you are a regular MSR reader you may remember that when the AT&T/DirecTV acquisition came to pass, we wondered how long it would take before AT&T and Verizon started battling each other in the quest to bring live NFL action to fans on their phones. The answer: wait no more, the battle’s here.

Today, AT&T announced that all subscribers to the DirecTV Sunday Ticket plan “will be able to stream Sunday afternoon out-of-market football games to almost any device” when action kicks off this fall. Previously, Sunday Ticket subscribers had to shell out about an extra hundred bucks to get the Sunday Ticket Max package, which offered streaming. Last year, the basic Sunday Ticket package was about $250; so far we can’t find a price for this season (and we don’t want to hunt through all the splash screens trying to get us to sign up for DirecTV services). Suffice to say it will still be a premium product, but one that many NFL fans can’t live without.

According to AT&T, live streaming via the Sunday Ticket plan was up 35 percent last year, a figure that doesn’t surprise us at all. We’ve been tracking Verizon Wireless and its NFL Mobile package of live-streamed games (which varies but usually includes Monday, Thursday and any weekend games, as well as Sunday out-of-market games) for some time now, and posts about NFL Mobile typically draw the highest traffic to our site. Verizon has never released subscriber numbers for NFL Mobile, but if you guessed it was among the most popular sports apps out there, you would probably be right. Even at $1 billion for four years, the rights fees seem a bargain for Verizon.

DirecTV pays the NFL more (about $1.5 billion a year, according to reports) but it gets more; NFL Mobile is exclusive to cell phone devices, meaning you can’t use it on tablets or PCs. And now thrown into the mobile mix is Twitter, whose reported $10 million deal with the NFL for Thursday-night games also includes the rights to stream to cell phones and any other device. Anyone else out there want to play?

Why is NFL action so popular on mobile devices? Mainly, I think, because of several factors, including fantasy betting and the fact that the screens have gotten so big and sharp, you can actually watch a game on a phone and it’s not painful. As many of us mobile-NFL freaks know, the best part of the deals isn’t necessarily the games themselves, but instead it’s access to the NFL’s RedZone channel, which keeps you up to date on action all across the league (and despite its name, it offers way more than just plays “in the red zone.” They try to keep live action going at all times, and NO COMMMERCIALS makes it a football junkie’s dream).

Plus, on the West coast, RedZone will often just show all of later games since there are fewer contests to jump in between. I don’t know how many people will sit every Sunday through several games on the couch, but if you can watch a few minutes or a final drive while you’re somewhere else it’s pretty addictive.

No news yet this year from Verizon on what the NFL Mobile package of games might look like, but stay tuned: This battle is just getting started. Good news is, more competition means more access and lower prices for fans. That’s something we can all cheer, no matter which teams we root for.

Twitter to stream NFL Thursday night games to all platforms, including smartphones

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.00.55 AMThe big news from the NFL today was a deal signed with Twitter, under which Twitter will get to stream live NFL Thursday Night games online to any connected device, including smartphones. To us, that last bit is the most interesting part of the deal since it breaks the previous stronghold held by Verizon Wireless and its NFL Mobile deal, under which Verizon was previously the sole provider of live NFL action to smartphones.

While many NFL games have been streamed by various entities online — including recent years’ playoff games, the Super Bowl and Monday Night Football — for most of those “broadcasts” you could only watch on a phone-type device if you were a Verizon customer and used the NFL Mobile app. The only exception we know of for U.S. fans was the extra-price DirecTV Sunday Ticket package, which also allowed for mobile viewing; but for free online action, you could typically only watch on a PC, connected TV or a tablet — smartphones were the exclusive domain of Verizon.

Under the Twitter deal, fans who are Twitter users will be able to watch Thursday night games free of any other charge, on tablets, PCs, connected TVs and smartphones, according to a release today from the NFL and Twitter. In addition to live action, the league and Twitter promise pre-game extras like Periscope broadcasts from teams and players, meaning you will get low-quality jittery interviews instead of professionally produced material. But we jest. The Periscope broadcasts could be cool, especially if they are on the field where fans never really get to be.

The Twitter deal follows on the heels of last season’s Yahoo-streamed game, which attracted 15.2 million viewers. It will be interesting to see what the numbers are for Twitter this year, since the Thursday night games will be available on regular TV from both NBC and CBS, which have five games each, as well as on the NFL Network, which will simulcast all games on Thursday nights.

March Madness viewing: More digital options, plus some virtual reality

MML_iPhone_01-WatchRemember when college basketball tournament season only had a small slice of games available online? Or when you had to pay extra to watch online? It wasn’t that long ago. Thankfully though the future is here now and for 2016 the college hoops postseason has even more ways to watch games mobile or online, including one option to watch games via virtual reality programming.

Like last year, if you have a qualifying cable contract, you are basically covered and should be able to watch all the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games live, on whichever platform you want. The best way to start is to head to the NCAA’s March Madness home page, where you should be able to find any and all information on devices, apps and other avenues to streaming coverage. According to Turner Sports, the NCAA and CBS Sports the games will be available live on 12 different platforms, including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku players and Roku TV models. The new March Madness Live app isn’t avalable until Thursday, so check back soon for the go-to app for everything March Madness.

Also like last year, you should be able to watch a few minutes of the first game you see without having to log in — great if you are just trying to catch a buzzer beater. The games of course will be available on regular TV, and the March Madness home page has what may be a great time saver, a widget that helps you find those obscure cable channels other than CBS or TNT where the games might be on. Since we’ve just moved, MSR’s NCAA viewing team might make good use of the Zip Code-powered channel finder.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 12.14.34 PMEven if you don’t have a cable contract you can still watch a lot of games that are streamed online; games broadcast on CBS will be available for no charge on desktop, mobile and tablet platforms, while games broadcast on the other channels (TNT, TBS, truTV and local channels) should be available on those providers’ websites. Again, if you get stuck or lost just defaulting back to the March Madness home page should give you a path to whatever game it is you’re looking for.

Big East tourney available in VR

If you have a NextVR platform you will be able to watch the 2016 Big East tournament (it starts Thursday, March 10) thanks to a partnership between FOX Sports and NextVR. We’re not VR-savvy here at MSR headquarters yet but with seven games and 15 hours of programming scheduled this might be a cool treat for VR fans. NextVR has an instruction page on how to watch the games in VR; if anyone tries this out, send us an email with a report on how it worked (or didn’t) and we’ll let everyone else know.

Also, don’t forget — this year for the first time the NCAA Men’s Championship game, scheduled for Monday, April 4, will be on TBS, NOT on CBS, the first time the champs game has been only on cable. And, there will be streaming options as well during Final Four weekend, according to the official announcement:

For the NCAA Final Four National Semifinals on Saturday, April 2, from Houston, NCAA March Madness Live will provide three distinct live video streams of both games to provide unprecedented viewing options for fans – live streaming of the traditional game coverage provided on TBS, along with “Team Stream by Bleacher Report” coverage or team-specific presentations offered via TNT and truTV. This year’s NCAA Tournament will include the National Championship airing on TBS, the first time the championship has ever been televised on cable television.

Yahoo: 15.2 million viewers for online NFL game

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 10.43.42 AMThe early numbers are in, and according to Yahoo and the NFL there were 15.2 million unique viewers of Sunday’s first-ever online-only streaming of an NFL game, a 34-31 victory by the Jacksonville Jaguars over the Buffalo Bills from Wembley Stadium in London.

While there were some reports of problems with the stream — mainly fuzzy and pixelated pictures — according to the NFL and Yahoo the streaming saw “an average rebuffering ratio of less than 1%” during the 480 million total video minutes served up. The streaming broadcast also saw 33.6 million discrete streams, which meant that many of the unique viewers either clicked on and off, or restarted their streams (maybe after experiencing some of that “rebuffering”). While I don’t agree with Business Insider’s view that the event was a “disaster” the choppiness and possible drops might have been annoying to some who have never viewed live events online before. Maybe we’re immune because we watch so much sports online, but c’mon, you have to allow for the fact that this is live video transversing a best-effort network, which on one level is still pretty amazing. Now if they could just find something other than a weirdo Matthew McConaughey ad we’d be fine.

Interestingly, 33 percent of the streams were from international sources, meaning that such exercises could possibly help the NFL expand its live-action reach outside of its traditional U.S. broadcast boundaries. Since the game wasn’t on live TV (except for local markets) it’s not a surprise that it was most likely the highest-ever total audience for a streaming sports event; SB Nation has a good roundup of the numbers and media observers’ takes on the event.

Mobile Sports Report watched the stream for a bit, both online via a browser and on our phone, and we were part of that 1 percent that experienced fuzzy/pixelated views, mainly on the laptop. What was interesting was that Verizon’s NFL Mobile app also carried the game, in perfect sync with the browser view; the Yahoo page viewed via the phone, however, was about 11 seconds ahead of the regular web page view, which we found puzzling.

Our other take on the event was mainly about how vanilla it was — the stream had none of the extras or features we’ve come to expect from online offerings, like a replay timeline, multiple camera angles, or choices on commentators, like the college football megacasts. We’re not sure if that was due to Yahoo’s desire to keep it simple to make the delivery easier, or if the NFL didn’t want frills, but by and large it felt like just another NFL game. Since we regularly watch NFL games digitally, either on the phone via NFL Mobile or online via ESPN or Fox or NBC it didn’t seem very revolutionary to us. Maybe next time the NFL can step up its game and use more of the medium. With the numbers and audience, it seems like a no-brainer to try.

Yahoo’s NFL streaming game: Where to turn for help

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 2.50.49 PMSunday’s groundbreaking live streaming of an NFL game — groundbreaking mainly because Yahoo is making it free to all types of viewers on basically any platform with an Internet connection — could be the biggest ever streamed sporting event ever, even though it’s just the Jaguars vs. the Bills.

HERE IS THE YAHOO INFO PAGE ON HOW TO CONNECT

But it’s also just as likely that there will be some issues with the delivery, so we asked Yahoo folks some questions about where fans can turn for help should they not be able to view the game.

Matt Edelman, a product manager at Yahoo, responded to our email questions with these answers:

MSR: Where can fans go (web, twitter, etc.) for technical support help if they have problems streaming the game?

Yahoo: Fans can tweet @YahooSports or @YahooCare for online help

MSR: Are there any browser or operating system requirements to view the game? Video player?

Yahoo: No – the game will be available across all digital devices (computers, phones, tablets and connected TVs) for free globally. You can also stream the game from our destination page.

MSR: What technical resources are in place to make sure the streaming isn’t overloaded?

Yahoo: At Yahoo, we’ve been laser focused on delivering the NFL’s premium content through a best-in class streaming experience, live, across devices. We’ve built a lot of tech and infrastructure in house to be able to deliver on the scale and quality of this event globally. We’re also working with a number of partners to bring this experience to our users.

MSR: Is there any guess as to how many people will stream the event?

Yahoo: We’re focused on making sure we bring an exceptional viewing experience to football fans around the world. This is the first time a live stream like this has ever been done with the NFL, and we’re excited. (editor’s note: Translation: We’re not giving you a number!)

Good luck out there all you digital watchers… any problems with the stream, let us know as well by tweeting @paulkaps.

Monday quick thoughts: Livestreaming comes of age on fight night; PGA’s digital moves confusing

Some quick thoughts on a Monday where yours truly is recovering from a week-plus as stage crew for my daughter’s musical, a much more physically taxing job than originally thought:

Livestreaming comes of age during Mayweather vs. Pacquiao

We’ve been pounding the drum a bit lately about livestreaming apps like Twitter’s Periscope and its twin Meerkat, which allow people to become personal broadcasters, relaying live video of whatever their phone cameras can see to their “followers” on the livestreaming services. Earlier this year we wondered if the services would cause a problem for sports like baseball (which is not worried about livestreaming just yet) but the big breakout in livestreaming and sports came this past Saturday night, when lots of people used Periscope and Meerkat to give others a free, completely illegal look at the closed pay-per-view fight by holding their phones up to TVs showing the live action.

The fallout still hasn’t hit in any official or legal way yet, but after HBO’s quick lawsuits trying to stop people from livestreaming episodes of Game of Thrones, you can bet that similar legal attempts to constrain the services from showing exclusive sports footage won’t be far behind. I also just saw a photo of the live crowd at the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight that showed multiple fans holding up phones, no doubt some of them livestreaming. While Major League Baseball’s Bob Bowman thinks that most fans don’t want to hold their phones up for long stretches of time, my thinking is, that before long someone’s going to figure out how to link a GoPro helmet cam to their phone for HD livestreaming that’s hands-free. Then what?

I just think this is going to be a much bigger deal than leagues and sports think right now. The weird coolness factor of being your own broadcaster is strangely compelling, and is a step up from the ubiquitous selfie. While Twitter CEO Dick Costolo might think it was cool that Periscope “won the fight” Saturday night, let’s see how smug he is when lawsuits start showing up at the door.

And while the terms of service for both Periscope and Meerkat clearly state that the services may not be used to show copyrighted content — and while the services have made noises about being ready to kick off users who do so — the fact that you can sign up instantly makes the policing after-the-fact a fail before it starts. Nobody wants the return of phone and camera police at big events, a kind of enforcement that never really worked and won’t work now that videocameras can fit inside pockets. Twitter, which clearly wants to play ball with sports leagues — witness its deals with entities like the NFL to show approved replays — needs to get out in front on the livestreaming/sports issue or risk legal wrath. And we haven’t even talked yet about how livestreaming might affect bandwidth on stadium networks, a topic sure to be discussed at the upcoming SEAT Conference in San Francisco this July. More on livestreaming soon, you can bet.

PGA sends confusing message with credential pull

When I wrote an editorial suggesting that the PGA embrace livestreaming as a way to attract more fans with innovative use of new technology, I had no idea that earlier that day the Tour had pulled a season credential from reporter Stephanie Wei for using Periscope to show some live video of practice rounds from the World Golf Championships Match Play event at Harding Park last week. Coming just after the PGA announced a deal with MLBAM to produce an over-the-top service to show live Thursday and Friday morning rounds, it was thoroughly confusing: Was the Tour embracing new media, while slapping the wrists of other media who dared use the same technology?

In a quick call Friday with Ty Votaw, the Tour’s executive vice president for communications, we heard the Tour’s claim that Wei had a “long history of [policy] violations,” and that the suspension of her credentials was due to the long history, and not just her use last Monday of Periscope. Wei posted her own version of the story on her blog, Wei Under Par. As far as we know, Wei is the first major-sports reporter to get a credential pulled in part because of Periscope use.

While we clearly understand the need to protect copyrighted broadcasts, it’s our opinion that the Tour needs to lighten up on quick-hit video content, especially for coverage of things that the TV broadcasters don’t show, like practice rounds or range action. As we said, such content could attract a young golf-geek audience and reward hustling reporters like Wei, who we’ve been following mainly because of her fresh take and embrace of social-media methods of communication. For a deeper look inside the whole issue, you should read this column from Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck on the incident, and why he thinks (and we agree) that the losers here are golf fans.