21 Aug 2016

Part 1: Sports Networks Need to Get Their Live Streaming Game On

Earlier this year I complained about the weaknesses of NBC Sports’ live streaming platform, that it would freeze or just not work altogether. Back then I was hoping the networks’ digital team would take the timing of SXSW 2016 and their sponsorship of SXsports, which turns Austin’s Four Seasons into an NBC-branded sports conference, to introduce a new and improved NBCSN.

NBCSN Live Streaming Glitches during the Premier League Match

 It didn’t happen.

Last weekend was the start of the Premier League 2016/17 season and guess what. NBC Sports’ live streaming is still plagued with issues.

On Sunday my Premier League team, Arsenal, was playing the first match of the season against Liverpool. Their performance and the reasons behind their loss, including how Arsene Wenger, the team’s manager since 1996, may have overstayed his welcome, were all too familiar conversations exchanged on Twitter. Sports fans can only take so many years of Groundhog Day repetition without wanting to smash the clock.

 

The same goes for live streaming sports platforms. More and more, this way of watching our teams play is becoming more critical to the live viewing experience for sports fans.

#FAIL: Breaking It Down

Going to nbcsports.com a bit before the start of the game 9:00am, I click on the Arsenal vs. Liverpool link, only to be taken to a pre-match article, not the live stream. So I’m early. Fine.

Return right at 9:00am. Then 9:01, 02, 03, refreshing my browser each time and there’s STILL no change to the home page. Son of a bitch.

I break out my iPad and go to the NBC Sports app. I see updates have been made since the end of last PL season in May, but nothing that makes me want to jump up and cheer. At least the match is actually running on the app, after I sign in with a cable subscription login. If I didn’t have that, there wouldn’t be any way to watch the match (more on this later).

I also see that there’s STILL no Chromecast support (nor is there on other NBC TV apps including USA Network and NBC for non-sports shows) to enable viewing on a much bigger screen than the iPad mini. How long has Chromecast been around? Three years. Why does this matter? It’s estimated that Chromecast reach has exceeded 30 million units, with 5 million sold between the months of May and July of 2016. Chromecast penetration hit 35 percent of the global streaming market in 2015, an increase of 32 percent.

That means the only way to cast the match to the flat screen where I’m staying is from the Chrome browser on my MacBook.

About five minutes into the match I found the live stream link by going to Watch Now Live, only to confront the same black screen spinning wheel I endured last season. That went on for what seemed like forever. Five minutes in sports time is like years. Finally, about ten minutes into the match, the live stream link to the match was refreshed on the home page, and clicking that link led me to a page where the stream was working.

But wait, let’s play some commercials first before playing the match. By now I’m totally infuriated. The next 85 minutes of Arsenal’s performance, or lack thereof, didn’t help.

Seriously, you can't tell me that devs can't write friggin' code that says, if the game is in play and the user is just signing on, skip the commercials. There will be PLENTY of other opportunities to try to sell us stuff we may or may not be interested in buying. But this ad insertion strategy just associates a highly negative qualitative feeling with whichever brand advertiser happens to be in the way of the game. Ever here the saying, "You make a better door than a window?"

It’s 2016. Enough With the Excuses.

In his post-match interview, Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger was full of reasons why their play on the pitch was not its best, and fans on Twitter hit back with zero empathy. We’d heard it all before, year after year, after year.

 

In a 2012 New York Times article, Richard Sandomir wrote of the technical difficulties he was having with the NBC Sports app and nbcsports.com during the London Olympics. “Each time I tried to play a live video, it froze or started and stopped. Similar problems were reported, anecdotally, on Twitter and in my e-mails,” wrote Sandomir.

The writer reached out to NBC for comment, and Rick Cordella, the vice president and general manager of NBC Sports Digital Media, responded with plenty of excuses as to why the live stream of their Olympics coverage wasn’t working properly, and all of them pointed to the user.

Cordella stated that NBC’s “extensive troubleshooting so far suggests that the technical problems might be with the bandwidth provided by cable operators, or users’ computers or devices.”

It’s four years later and Groundhog Day for NBC Sports app and nbcsports.com. My issues were not an isolated case. “As they struggle to stream live video coverage of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, many users of the NBC Sports app are feeling the agony of defeat,” wrote NY Post columnist, James Covert, this past weekend.

Complaints range from “annoying commercials, dropped signals and a lack of options for users who aren’t already cable subscribers,” to the disruptive way ads are programmed into the app. “Literally, 10 seconds before the finish a commercial gets dropped and when it comes back, the race is OVER!” said a reviewer of the app on the iTunes store.

 

This year Sandomir is back at the Olympics reporting, “Streaming is a part of NBC’s Olympic future” and since NBC Sports has committed to stream every Olympic sport live, the cumulative total as of last Thursday, August 11, had reached 1.28 billion minutes.

NBC Sports Group Digital were elated with the numbers. The CTO Eric Black reflected back the first time his group streamed the Super Bowl, explaining that he was so focused on having it go right that had no idea who won.

Sandomir, hinting at his own personal experience in 2012, ended the piece like this.

“But those who stream often care, some quite deeply, in a world where people want to be entertained on demand — and buffering of the live hammer throw or trouble signing on to NBCOlympics.com can be causes for an angry tweet.”

Ding! Ding! Ding!

Black’s emphasis was on how much content they had streamed, “Going past one billion minutes — I’m impressed, excited and overjoyed,” showed no mention of the quality of their UX. In their position, there’s no doubt NBC’s digital team has plenty of data showing the issues that Sandomir, myself, and other NBC Sports users have experienced. Given how long these problems have existed, how features more users want like Chromecast support is still missing, and how they’re programming ads to run in the middle of live content is evidence that they seek to impress someone else besides the NBC Sports live stream viewer.

If NBC and other sports networks really see live streaming and digital as their future, the rules of the game are going to need to change. Quickly.

 

Part 2 of this Connected Sports Series will delve into the deals between sports networks and pay-TV, their glory days and current defeats, and how the rise of sports licensing deals is clashing with a drop in traditional TV subscribers. Part 3 will look at what options cord-cutting sports fans have today from pay-TV networks and how new virtual MVPD’s like FuboTV are entering the fray. 

 

Read 1544 times