Down, set, delay

How live sports can thrive in an on-demand video world

The Monday night shootout between the Rams and Chiefs last month was pounced on as a harbinger of the new NFL, the game that flagged a generational pivot to a high-flying, high-scoring, defense-free touchdown fest where passes whistle like warheads and where exhausted cornerbacks are strewn about the hash lines, gasping for air.

But for me, it was a revelation on another dimension: time.

“Now if only CHIEFS can get the FG and tie for overtime!” texted Scott, my brother, late during the fourth quarter.

Exactly, I thought for half a second. But hold on. Whuuuuut?? Tie it? How? The Rams were still down by four with 1:56 left on the clock. The only way the Chiefs could be behind by a field goal would be something like…this.

Then I got it. Jarrod Goff’s pinpoint arc of a TD toss to Gerald Everett happened for my brother something like 15 or 20 seconds before it happened for me. He was watching the game via ESPN via Comcast, the local cable company. I was watching on something called Hulu with Live TV, a newfangled over-the-Internet video service that’s angling to out-cable cable with cheaper bundles of channels.

The timing was different because the path my video signal traversed involved extra stops for an elaborate array of signal modifications in order to play nice with a fragmented Internet ecosystem. It’s, umm, complicated. The acronym-enriched explanation from Streaming Media magazine is that Hulu’s process “…involves stripping out production data from the feeds, adding commercial DRM, and sending streams to partner CDNs.”

In other words, this is not your yesteryear satellite-to-headend-to-home pathway. Even so, eventually the signal found its way to the “last-mile” access network operated by CenturyLink, a telecom company serving my neighborhood. From there it hit an optical network terminal stashed underneath my media cabinet in the living room, Ethernet-ed its way to my wireless router, and skipped wirelessly and invisibly to an Apple TV receiver that communicated via HDMI wire to my TV set. I was basically getting the equivalent of what we used to call “cable TV” without the intervention of an actual “cable” company. The extra stops for Internet-style delivery caused the aforementioned delay to a signal that actually wasn’t live for anybody except the people at the L.A. Coliseum.

Internet streaming is the extreme example, but the truth is that regardless of what video service you’re connected to, cable, satellite TV or even over-the-air delivery, you’re actually watching the ghost of the action, a recorded memory of the moment. Even with my bro’s speedier pace of delivery/exhibition, by the time the picture showed up on his TV set Goff was already jogging off the field and high-fiving teammates.

The point is: For the viewer at home, none of this matters. We infer live even when we sorta know it’s not. We contribute a willful suspension of disbelief. We convince ourselves we’re watching in real-time, the better for jumping up from the couch and shouting and spraying potato chips all over the carpet when the big score happens.

This is the important thing to know: “Live” isn’t “live” because it’s in real-time. “Live” is “live” because our definition of “live” is whenever we (living, attentive beings) see something happen on a screen without knowing in advance what would happen. It’s a behavioral compromise that may be more common than you think. Two examples:

  • My friend Kevin DVRs Denver Broncos games, settling into the easy chair with a frosty beer and a canister of peanuts on Sunday nights to watch the thing hours after the final whistle blew. You have to be careful not to text him during the day, because he’ll get huffy about you having blown the element of surprise.
  • Or: me and Major League Baseball. I’m an avid fan, but I haven’t watched more than a dozen games “live” over the past few seasons, excepting a few divisional championship games and the World Series. Why? All the reasons you probably can guess: a second-grader who streams toy videos on YouTube; dinner to cook, deadlines to accommodate. What I do is watched on-demand truncated game replays on MLB.com later in the evening. MLB’s replays are baseball heaven, a thousand times more satisfying than watching the game “live” with commercial interruptions and the braying of announcers, packed three to a booth, who talk too much.

Sidebar: Oh for a return to the microphone of Skip Caray, the late Atlanta Braves/TBS play-by-play guy, whose calmly cadenced call of an at-bat used to go like this: “That’s a strike.” (Silence and crowd noise for 15 seconds.) “Outside. Ball one.” (More silence.) “That one’s fouled off.” (Silence even through the entire next pitch because we all can see it’s strike two and he doesn’t need to remind us.) Then the capper: “Got him.” Joe Buck could take a cue.

So: If the definition of watching sports “live” means watching sports whenever we choose to, it might mean more than we think.

A few years ago, the NFL started deals with three of the big digital video distributors: YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, involving edited clips of signature moments from current games. This was the logical progression of the football highlight. Forty years ago you watched the halftime presentation during ABC’s “Monday Night Football” because it was the only place to see highlights. The NFL Films group overnighted film reels from Sunday to the production studio in New York, where they were reassembled and edited in time for the broadcast, with Howard Cosell narrating. It was basically heaven. Then, highlights spread to more TV networks more of the time; ESPN dug in big with highlights during the Sunday night recap shows. The NFL started planting highlights on its own website.

And now, Twitter et al. What’s fascinating here is that most of these highlights appear in Twitter’s feed or on YouTube’s on-demand library within a few minutes from their actual occurrence. (I know this because I tracked it for a client not too long ago.)

It is, in a word, revelation. Don’t tell the NFL, but the ENTIRE REASON we used to sit through interminable, three-hour game broadcasts is because THERE WAS NO ALTERNATIVE. Now there is and thank you.

What this suggests to me is that the yen for “live” sports is maybe less intense than everybody in the TV business thinks it is. That we’re willing to cut corners and accept delays suggests a human willingness to tolerate less-than-live sports. The trade-off is: I’ll give up live if you give me convenient.

This realization should probably strike horror in the hearts of sports leagues, in particular, because they make gazillions of dollars by peddling TV rights that are predicated on the assumption of TNLL: There’s Nothing Like Live. “Sports rights is what is supporting the entire legacy media ecosystem,” points out media investment analyst Rich Greenfield of BTIG Research in an October 2018 report.

But what if the emperor is, you know, naked? What if there’s just as much (or nearly as much) consumer desire to watch sports the same way we now all watch “regular” television, which is, whenever we want to? If people are actually willing (and may prefer) to experience sports on somewhat of a time-delayed basis, it calls into question a decades-long model for monetizing spectator sports, and of equal import, it suggests there might just be room in the mix for a new way of presenting television sports other than conveying live, you-are-there streams.

This notion is total blasphemy if you’re wedded to the thinking that nobody wants to stray from “live” presentation of a sports event. The entire reason we gather ‘round the set for the Super Bowl, for the obvious example, is to rekindle that increasingly rare sense of communal experience TV used to bring us. I grant you that. But I’ve always felt people go to the Super Bowl example too early and too often. Like the NCAA men’s basketball tournament or the Masters, it’s an uber event unto itself, and it’s not entirely representative of the broader spectrum of televised sports. I get that we have an inner desire to watch the Super Bowl live, knowing a billion other humans are simultaneously invested in the moment. But the early-season Lakers-Spurs game on a Tuesday night? I’m cool with tuning in the next morning to get a recap and missing the Dodge truck ads.

The notion that sports could fit into television’s new economic model of “SVOD,” or “subscription video on demand” would seem laughable to the old guard. But think about it from a fresh perspective. If “live” television means an on-screen experience that starts whenever we press “play,” then it might be perfectly acceptable to wrap “live” sports into an on-demand vessel.

Like this: You pay $19.99 per month for something called the ESPN Sports Experience. (I just invented that name and you’re welcome, Disney.) It’s every meaningful game across every meaningful league (the big four plus more) compressed to one-fifth its original length and presented on-demand within a couple of hours or so of the original start time. Which means you’re going to be watching after the player nailed the three, sank the putt, tossed the halfback option or robbed the home run, but you don’t really care. The action starts when you say so.

Or, how about we use a similar model to, I dunno, save baseball or something. We eschew the notion of televising an entire game live and instead we skip to slightly delayed highlights because that way you get to watch what actually matters or is exciting and discard the rest. Wait: that’s actually happening. An upstart online sports TV service, DAZN, run by former ESPN boss John Skipper, is about to do that starting with the 2019 season. When you tune to the daily/afternoon highlights show, you won’t be seeing games live from a purist sense. But you’ll be getting your baseball fix 100x more concentrated and it’ll be grand, I promise.

I’m not suggesting entirely that live sports on TV are doomed. But I am thinking there’s money to be made around the edges, playing with assumptions that aren’t exactly spot-on any more. Some savants have suggested, half-seriously, that the NFL could do away entirely with live stadium audiences and simply present games on glorified sound-stages in order to feed the TV beast with greater efficiency. This is ridiculous, of course, but expressive in an exaggerated way of the bigger realization, which is that our brains are willing to stretch the boundaries of “live” in ways people are only now thinking about.

Tom Petty once sang about this, sort of. I’ll catch you on the flip…

I think somebody (Apple, Disney, the NFL itself) is going to jump on this idea soon, carving out a new set of sports rights that leverage the realization that live is less important than ever and that convenience and personalization are bigger influences than you’d think. The NFL is nearly there, with the NFL Game Pass subscription video service that gives you game recaps by Sunday night, but I’m thinking about something even deeper/faster/better, drawing from what Twitter et al already do. Imagine that by 1 p.m. your time on Sunday, you can fire up any of the early games, commercials stripped away and action aplenty, without having to rig up a do-it-yourself DVR experience. You’re surrendering live, but getting convenience, action and tonnage.

Now and then it’s good to question legacy assumptions about how media gets presented. In fact, it’s how fortunes are made (or at least big Series C financings are completed). I’m convinced that with sports, there’s a whole new playing field out there to be grabbed. If, that is, you’re willing to do what Tom Brady so coolly does when it’s 3rd and long and the game’s on the line: ignore the clock.

Stewart Schley is a media industry analyst who also writes novels in obscurity and darkness. Find him (well, me) at www.stewartschley.com.

Writer, editor, media industry analyst. Fan of electric guitars. Believes in Santa Claus and baseball. Some light dusting.

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