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Sports Fans Care More About Picture Quality Than Latency, Says Verizon Report

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Conventional industry wisdom tells us that live sports fans value low latency above all else. But a new research report from Verizon Media suggests that picture quality and cost are both more important than latency. That's just one of many findings in "Viewing Shifts: How We Watch Sport," which Verizon Media published today in partnership with Leaders in Sport (registration is required to download).

Of course, most consumers don't call it "latency," but when asked how important "Time behind live (as close to real-time as possible)," only 42% of respondents ranked it as extremely important, compared to 64% for high-quality picture and 54% for cost. When combined with respondents who ranked it as important, neither unimportant or important, or unimportant, latency showed a total of 83%, coming in third behind cost's 85% and high-quality picture's 93%. And when given the option to choose between a 4K picture and as close to real time as possible, 66% chose the higher-quality picture. 

That finding runs counter to the low latency hype at industry conferences, and Verizon Media chief product officer Ariff Sidi says that he was surprised to see it, but that it makes sense. "As the world moves forward and digital is more of a primary means of consumption, I think the importance of latency starts to go down," he says. "I think there will always still be some sort of bragging rights around latency, but it's a relative measure. But the impact on user experience really only happens when you have differences that are 'in your face' about a traditional experience that is lower latency versus a digital experience which is slightly longer." In other words, the more people watch on digital, the less likely they are to be comparing it with broadcast. 

The report also finds that fans will cancel quickly if they don't see the value in a service. More than a third (37%) of sports fans say they've canceled a live streaming subscription, and 45% of those said that cost was the primary reason. Among the most passionate sports viewers—whose who watch more than 11 hours of live sports per week—a lack of coverage of the teams they follow is the biggest reason for cancellations (23%), followed by a hard-to-use interface (15%) and inordinate delay behind live (19%), showing that latency does matter to the most hardcore sports fans.

But even though fans cite cost as a reason they've canceled services, they also said they are willing to pay, or pay more, for sports services that offered more access to the teams they want to watch, and that they were willing to pay more for an ad-free experience, and that they expect sports streaming services to offer fewer ad breaks.

"My read on that is that consumers, rightfully so, want it all," Sidi says. "They want it, they want great quality, they want good content, they don't want ads, and they want it at the lowest possible price." Viewers will either pay with money (via subscription) or with time (via watching ads), and Sidi encourages services to consider hybrid models that allow people more choice over how they're paying for what they're watching. 

A few sporting events lend themselves to streaming for free (i.e., 100% ad supported), like the Super Bowl id, and Verizon Media was the streaming platform and the CDN behind this year's game on Fox. "We picked up the contribution feeds from them directly into our streaming platform, both the non-4K and the 4K, and the went through our entire transcoding and packaging pipeline, and we do ad insertion," Sidi says. "And we drop all of those HLS segments onto our CDN and onto the origin server, so a multi-CDN solution could be part of what Fox wanted to do for the Super Bowl … By the end of the game, we had 100% of the 4K CDN traffic (on our CDN)."

Verizon Media says its Super Bowl encoding ladder ranged from 3840x2160 to 768x432 resolutions supporting both HDR and SDR formats and scaling from UHD @ 60 fps to small SD screen sizes @ 30fps.

The total audience for this year's game was 3.4 million concurrent streams, which was up 30% over the 2019 game. But this was the first year in memory where neither the network nor its streaming provider didn't make a huge deal out of those numbers. "That sort of indicates that digital and streaming isn't a side project," Sidi says. "It's a primary way of people consuming content, and their expectations are that they get a TV-like experience like they always have had."

The research for "Viewing Shifts: How We Watch Sport"—which also includes findings on advertising, second screen usage, and other viewer patterns—was conducted by Sapio Research, which surveyed 5,018 sports fans from the UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, and the U.S. in December 2019.

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