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Gentlemen, Start Your Streams

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Put “.com” after their names, and a lot of so-called legacy media companies become titans of new media. Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), and broadcasters including ESPN and CBS have quickly developed streaming media propositions for their sports operations. They’re not releasing numbers too readily in what’s become a significant new media market. But as recently as a year ago, BusinessWeek reported that for the 63-game March Madness tournament alone, CBS raked in $30 million from advertisers including AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Pontiac, as 7.5 million college basketball fans streamed games on their personal computers, iPhones, and other personal digital devices.

Sports has turned into a key breakthrough sector for any number of new media technologies. For instance, it’s widely acknowledged that ESPN and FOX Sports made 5.1 surround audio a staple of live broadcast television. And for its coverage of the World Cup this year, ESPN launched the first of what will be several all-3D sports channels. Whereas entertainment sites such as Hulu have yet to show a profit despite a huge amount of traffic for free, ad-supported viewing of TV shows, CBS claims it has made a profit, and it did so nicely for both the 2009 NCAA basketball and Masters golf tournaments. “Whether it’s radio or satellite TV, sports has traditionally driven access to new platforms,” Arash Amel, broadband media analyst at London-based market research firm Screen Digest Ltd., was reported as telling BusinessWeek.

The challenges for streaming sports events center around time and bandwidth. Noting how ESPN’s Wimbledon tennis coverage had to be moved to another of its networks when the Germany-Ghana World Cup match ran exceptionally long, John Zehr, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN’s mobile operation (which streamed 3,200 baseball, soccer, and other contests last year), says the nature of sports makes many events last-minute propositions. “And we just had a couple of key NBA press conferences take place on very short notice even as we were doing the last semifinal match for World Cup,” he recalls. “We have to adapt to how the incoming content sources are changing. But there are only so many encoders, and we have to do multiple streams for as many as 60 different profiles of handsets for each event. It takes a lot of resources to keep up.”

Then there’s bandwidth. “In terms of where we are with Wi-Fi, it’s like back in 1999 when we were just streaming to desktops—the sources had good resolution and the computers had better and better speeds, but it was all limited by the size of the pipe in between them,” observes Joe Einstein, a digital architect at AEG Digital Media, which is now doing 30%–40% of its broadcasts as live streaming from its plant at the Nokia Center in Los Angeles. “The best performance is streaming over Wi-Fi, and the lowest is on the typical cell networks provided by companies like AT&T and Verizon. You’re going from about 1.5MB per second down to between say 100KB and 200KB per second. Quite a difference in speed. We have to tailor the stream to the device type, and the biggest changes are in the frame size and the bitrate for mobile streaming.”

Einstein compares AEG’s staple fare like MTV awards shows and other live entertainment programming (the kind of content that streaming gained its initial traction with) to sports, and he says the latter is significantly more challenging. “There’s a lot of point-of-view switching taking place, going from a wide shot of a baseball field, for instance, to show how the outfield is positioned to a close-up of the batter or the pitcher or a base runner,” he says. “Streaming has to do that too, because viewers have come to expect something more than a single feed.” In fact, in some applications, mobile device users can choose the camera angles that they prefer to watch, which compels streaming programs to keep as much content online as possible, further burdening bandwidth. “The ‘coach cam’ is getting very popular,” Einstein laughs.

Streaming sports to the internet has become a mature sector; World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has been doing it regularly since 1999. But streaming to mobile devices is high on most sports content developers’ radars, and WWE plans on getting its myriad content into that pipeline by year’s end. The major technical issue isn’t streaming in different bitrates (the 300Kbps channel the organization currently keeps active to support dial-up viewers could be applied to streaming to basic 2G mobile devices) but rather content protection in the less-defined distribution universe of mobile, which has numerous device profiles, not all of which support every streaming format. “We’re not sure if we’ll use DRM or token-based validation,” says Arno van Mosel, application architect at WWE.com, which currently uses the DRM included in Windows Media for content protection.

Daley Sports Figure 1

Say what you will about wrestling’s validity as a sport; there’s no doubt about its legitimacy as an online video powerhouse. World Wrestling Entertainment has been delivering online video since 1999.

In the decade-plus that it’s been streaming to the web, WWE’s 12-person technical operations group has picked up a few tricks that can also be applied to mobile devices. One is to pre-encode the stream to darken the background—when the lights are turned up periodically at WWE events to give the crowd the spotlight, massive amounts of color are revealed, sending the encoders into overdrive. “The color red and the pyrotechnics are especially a problem on the web,” says van Mosel. “[Red] bleaches into other colors around it, and the pyro can produce massive pixilation.”

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