How the 2020 Live Sports Shutdown Altered the Streaming Industry

By Megan Dobransky

April 13, 2021

When live sports disappeared for the better part of the year, it meant the streaming industry had to pivot, innovate, and maybe most importantly—experiment. Ultimately, many of the changes were successful. Here are 10 trends we saw emerge last year that are likely to continue.  

These trends are based on the Streaming Video Alliance Getting Back into the Game’ webinar. 

Diversifying of content categories 

As live sports halted, providers had to diversify. For publishers that had a mix of content that included news, entertainment, and sports, other types of content could fill the gap left by live sports. Some wins on this front include ESPN with The Last Dance and HBO Sports with Tiger. Unfortunately for those that could only offer more sports, classic or rerun games served as a crutch while different categories like social media, interactive user-generated content, and documentaries also played a role. Esports also really took off; athletes sitting on a webcam at home were surprisingly popular. Ultimately this diversification was necessary, but also means that providers can potentially reach new, more diverse audiences. 

Video on-demand (VOD) quality  

Streaming sports have hit the big screen TV. While that’s been part of its success, viewers also expect the quality to be almost as good as sitting in the stadium. In the spirit of diversifying content, many publishers resorted to rerunning older games. But the problem was that if it was a 10-year-old game, that quality was good 10 years ago. Audiences have adjusted to the new, high-quality streams of today, so publishers had to up the bitrate and adjust the older content to try to match viewer expectations 

Different monetization models  

The pandemic has been an accelerant rather than a change agent—the real sea change was from pay TV to streaming. Even with the pause in live sports, Peacock came to market and Fubo actually went public during the pandemic. In addition, some publishers pivoted away from advertising-supported video on demand (AVOD), because advertising collapsed in the second half of 2020. Providers are making decisions about monetization in a totally new way and that’s likely to continue well after the pandemic.

Rethinking the stack 

Many providers saw the live sports lull as an opportunity to fix technologies, improve quality of experienceand assess what could be done better. Operators took this time to really investigate how they were stacked, their security, and infrastructureand made changes that would improve and enhance the viewer experience going forward.  

Increased audience participation and engagement 

Even though live sports started to slowly return later in 2020, in-person attendance was still on hold for the most part. Sports publishers have long sought the idea of incorporating more fan engagement and user-generated content, so this point in time was the opportunity to experiment. We saw lots of screens in the stands instead of bodies, as well as enhanced streaming and social interactions not only with the live game itself, but also with specific players and teams. We will see more technologies emerge, like WebRTC and high efficiency streaming protocol (HESP), that allow for real-time communication capabilities in an application. Regardless of the type of technology, the concept of audiences participating in real time will most likely continue and evolve.

Bandwidth reduction 

Providers are often interested in techniques that reduce bandwidth without a loss of picture quality. They can’t neglect quality on streaming today, because a lot of viewing happens on the big screen. But delivering more streams over to the same amount of bandwidth available today is absolutely necessary.

In sports, not everything moves at the same time. If you look at soccer, for example, the whole field is tough to stream at very high quality, but if you zoom in on one or a few players, the rest of the scene is much less important. Providers learned they can have a little less resolution for the scene around the player, as long as the player is in very high resolution, with very little loss. Providers will likely continue to employ that technique as it ultimately ends up creating a better user experience.

More social investment 

Many publishers invested on the social side, particularly parallel social experiences, because even if viewer is not watching on your owned and operated apps, they may well be engaging with you somewhere else. Taking a more holistic view of the consumer both on social and streaming continues to make a great deal of sense 

Moving to cloud-native infrastructure  

Because of the uncertainty in spikes of viewing and availability of content, many publishers had difficulty spinning upspinning down, and controlling infrastructure. To get away from the concept of containers and into concepts like serverless infrastructure, some streaming operators moved toward cloud-nativeAs providers don’t often want to invest too much in infrastructure to support intermittent live events, moving to the cloud and paying only as those events occur makes sense. We will probably continue to see this type of cost savings and efficiency even beyond the pandemic.  

Anti-piracy and heightened security 

As operators took an inward look at their platforms to see what the security was like; pirates also took that opportunity to look at the security of those platforms. If content is worth producing, it’s worth protecting. While security hasn’t historically been an afterthought, providers took this time to investigate how security is integrated, how audiences get content, how content is produced, and the entire content experience.

The need for end-to-end measurement  

Something like the Super Bowl or March Madness, which was the most streamed ever this yearare masterpieces in unified production, marketing, advertising, and viewershipAll publishers are aiming for that type of productionFor that level every weekend for every sporting event, automated, end-to-end metrics are vital. Publishers needed and will continue to need that complete control of data and the ability to measure before further improvements can be made. 

To learn more about these trends, watch the ‘Getting Back into the Game’ webinar.