ESPN’s streaming World Cup: Record audiences, embarrassing crashes

Just like the U.S. Men’s soccer team, ESPN had it both good and bad during Wednesday’s World Cup game against Germany. On the plus side, ESPN recorded record audiences for its online broadcasts, easily topping any other sporting event ever, including Super Bowls.

But the bad was about as bad as the U.S. team’s somewhat lackluster shutout. By several accounts, including our personal viewing, ESPN’s live stream of the game crashed several times, and was (according to complaints on Twitter) simply unavailable for many viewers. While it’s an inexact science to track down how and why the problems may have been caused, there seems to be enough circumstantial evidence pointing to some pretty massive infrastructure failures from the worldwide leader. According to the Variety story, Univision’s live stream had no such problems, even though its size was smaller.

The line I love from the Variety story penned by our good pal Todd Spangler is the ESPN rep quoting “unprecedented demand” as a reason for the crashes. It would be one thing if something unexpected happened — like, say, the lights went out — and all of a sudden there was a huge audience that tuned in. But ESPN had to know the online viewership was going to be massive days ahead of time, given the start time in the middle of most of the U.S. business working hours. Plus, ESPN itself has spent the entire World Cup blasting emails about every 10 minutes or so, telling everyone it knows to tune in to games online. So: Huge demand? Yes. Unprecendented? Maybe. Unknown that it was coming? Unexplainable.

Maybe we’re holding ESPN to an unreal expectation here, but I’m trying to think how bad the fallout would be if Fox, or NBC, say, dropped the TV broadcast of a big event for even a few minutes. Media outlets around the world would be howling. It seems like online broadcasts are still getting a pass from observers, as if online doesn’t really count. But according to ESPN’s own numbers, online does count and the audiences are huge — 3.2 million uniques for the game — so why can’t big broadcasters put in an appropriate amount of resources to make sure the show goes on smoothly? Is it just that nobody really knows yet how much capacity it takes to keep a big event running? In that case, are advertisers and/or the sports who sell the online rights asking for refunds or make-goods?

As always we give a hats off to ESPN or any other broadcaster who tries to make as much content as possible available online. We just hope that going forward, those same broadcasters recognize that online is a significant, serious market, and that you underestimate your needs at your own peril.

Stadium for next U.S. World Cup game will have Ruckus-powered Wi-Fi available

Talk about luck of the draw: Fans of the U.S. men’s soccer team who are on hand for the squad’s next game on Tuesday, July 1, should be able to use a Ruckus Wireless-powered Wi-Fi network at the 51,900-seat Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil.

As MSR reported last year, Ruckus Wireless won contracts to supply the Wi-Fi gear for at least two of the stadiums being used in the World Cup tournament. One of those was Arena Fonte Nova, which will now host the USA-Belgium tilt in the elimination round. And with U.S. fans leading the way in on-scene participation in the World Cup, it’s a good bet that the Arena Fonte Nova network will get a workout on Wi-Fi since it’s probably a good guess that cellular roaming fees might be prohibitive. (We say this having no idea what the roaming charges might be for U.S. carriers in Brazil; but if the Wi-Fi is free, we can say without a doubt that’s the cheaper option.)

According to Ruckus the Wi-Fi network at the arena (which is also called the Estadio Octavio Mangabeira) will have about 150 access points, which to us sounds a bit low for full stadium coverage for a 51,000-seat arena, but again, we’ve not seen any stats for a Ruckus solution in real-world situations so maybe it’s enough.

With more news about players biting players and Brazilians protesting the World Cup, it’s not surprising that we haven’t heard much in the way of news about performance or non-performance of wireless networks at the numerous stadiums. Unlike an Olympics or a Super Bowl, where you are in one place for a long time, the World Cup seems to be more about sporadic visits to different stadiums, and a lot of travel, and probably a lot more time spent just enjoying the scene rather than worrying about tweeting it or posting to Facebook. And since there is no reliable news source for overall network operations for the World Cup, we don’t have any statistics or performance metrics to report. But so far so good, eh? If anyone knows of any specific problems or reports of poor performance send them our way. And if anyone is in Salvador next week, take a Speedtest of the Wi-Fi and send it along.