For a long time, if you wanted to watch live sports, you had to have cable or satellite TV. This often meant paying high prices and accepting a much larger packaged bundle of channels to get the one or two channels you wanted.
There were numerous reasons for this, many of which had to do with the way broadcast rights were managed between the leagues and the broadcasters. The battle for rights has been expanding in recent years to include mediums other than cable broadcast. Many of the major OTT platforms are beginning to enter this market. But there’s both consolidation and fragmentation happening at the same time.
Consolidation, Fragmentation and Re-Consolidation
Some big deals signed recently have consolidated broadcast rights — Apple, for instance, signed a deal last year to broadcast all Major League Soccer (MLS) games live. Also, Amazon now broadcasts the Thursday night NFL games on its Prime Video service. These providers realize there is a huge market of fans who will pay to have games streamed live to their huge television sets.
But fragmentation is happening as well. Numerous sports leagues have formed their own media in various ways. There are streaming apps available from the NBA, NFL, MLB, Formula 1 and other sports leagues like Cricket Australia, Major League Rugby and La Liga.
This can be a challenge for people who are fans of several sports, as they must sign up individually for each sport they want to stream as opposed to simply having many sports networks under a single linear cable TV subscription. But it can carry benefits as well: local blackout restrictions may not apply to streaming games, providing fans more flexibility to watch out-of-area games.
The cable networks have embraced the streaming game as well, with offerings like ESPN+ giving sports fans a one-stop shop for a lot of live sports broadcasts ranging from the entire NHL regular season and select NBA Games and UFC fights to relatively obscure offerings like college lacrosse and softball.
Initially, this fragmentation seemed good for consumers: people could pay for just the sports they wanted without wading through hundreds of superfluous channels. Consumers could cut their expensive cable subscriptions.
Fairly quickly, though, as each provider staked a claim on its territory, content became highly segmented. Now, consumers may need six or seven (or more) subscriptions to different streaming services just to access the sports and other content they want to watch, and the promise of cost-savings has eroded. People are now paying as much (or more) every month as they did with their cable subscriptions.
Disney offers a bundled package (with a price incentive) that includes their Disney Plus service, ESPN+ and Hulu. For many people, that one bundle may satisfy most of their home entertainment needs. Other consumers may take a more “a la carte” approach if a bundled offering doesn’t have what they want.
Over time, we will likely see more re-consolidation and bundling of streaming services the way Disney has done. Perhaps Amazon or Apple will begin to offer more live sports than their limited offerings today. Maybe the leagues and broadcasters will work out non-exclusive licensing deals that allow a broadcast to flow to different platforms. Future development can be strategically creative.
Shifting from the business and marketing side a bit to the tech itself, there are some fascinating developments we will see coming into greater prominence over the next several years.
First, immersive video technology has begun to appear in the sports world. At the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, we saw some immersive experiences being broadcast, such as the basketball tournament games offering 360-degree immersive replays, or field events like javelin, the hammer throw and high jump offering immersive video streams.
There are solutions on the production side to take immersive video captures and synthesize them into a single compound video stream that can be broadcast to a headset for a highly immersive, six-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) experience.
On the capture side, the technology is already there. It works well, and streams can be transmitted over today’s networks, despite the extremely high bandwidth and low latency requirements for these immersive experiences.
The limiting factor today is on the head-mounted display (HMD) device. In order to have a truly immersive experience, the HMD needs close to 4K resolution or greater per eye, and we are still far from that. Samsung and LG are working on micro-LED technology that will enable HMDs to achieve that level of immersivity, but there’s still work to be done. While an encouraging technology, it’s not ready for mass adoption yet.
It’s not just the display components limiting HMDs today. Advancements in 5G and edge computing will help HMDs improve as well, because we will be able to make devices wireless and offload compute and rendering capability from the device to the network’s edge. Fewer processors in the HMD itself means that it can be smaller, lighter, and run cooler; all of this will improve wearability.
Advancements in video compression will further improve efficiency of the entire immersive video signal chain, allowing higher resolution immersive video to flow freely to a range of devices without bogging down the network. Light field displays and other types of holographic display technology may soon become more commonplace for viewing sports.
The experience of watching sports is going to change in some interesting ways. With more immersive capture and better HMDs, watching live sports in the future could be much more immersive. We could see experiences where fans can feel like they are down on the field, or even gain the ability to choose their own point of view for the game. Crowdsourced videos created by fans attending the event may soon become an augmented part of the main sports broadcast. There is even work being done using swarms of drones to cover field sports from a greater variety of angles, but this has not yet been commercialized.
Other Evolutions in the Experience of Live Sports
The ability to personalize one’s viewing angle for a live broadcast is still nascent, but other levels of personalization are more fully developed.
For example, with Amazon’s Thursday night NFL broadcasts, viewers have the option of selecting an all-female announcing crew. Some sports (hockey, for instance) offer streams for certain games with audio in other languages.
Other leagues are beginning to experiment with live commentary from influencers and Twitch streamers instead of professional broadcasters. These options are primarily a matter of aggregating features that were already happening in other places.
Augmented reality will also add layers of personalization to live broadcast, where viewers will be able to customize which layers of information they superimpose on top of the live broadcast. Some may choose fantasy sports statistics, others may opt for betting information, and so on. In these ways, a live broadcast will be tailored to individual preferences in audio, video and supplementary data feeds that enhance the viewing experience.