YouTube tackles sports
YouTube Sports sets its sights on live streaming sports, every sort of sport imaginable.
Every minute, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube; more than one billion unique users visit the website each month; watching 6 billion hours of video. And, if YouTube were a cable TV channel, it could boast that it reaches more 18 to 34 year olds in the United States than any other cable network.
It’s no secret YouTube is transforming how people watch and distribute video. The facts speak for themselves.
What may be a bit more surprising is the growing role YouTube is playing as an online distributor of live sports coverage. It seems every sport imaginable is getting in on the action. Whether it’s a local bowling league, high school football team, collegiate athletics program or even major professional sports leagues and TV sports networks, YouTube is giving sports enterprises a way to reach audiences, extend their brands and drive revenue.
Doing so, however, hasn’t been without its hurdles. Perhaps the most challenging has been making it easy for those with no particular technical training to distribute their sports online. After all, while large TV sports networks are important users of the service, they aren’t representative of the majority of organizations YouTube is working to enlist as providers of live sports content. Who could even approach these TV stalwarts when it comes to video production background and overall technical expertise? “Some folks are just getting started,” says Perry Tobin, Technology Manager for YouTube Sports. “Some know what it takes to produce a live event; some have never done it at all.”
To make things simpler, YouTube has spent the past couple of years putting in place the technology needed to deliver high-quality live sports action, via the Internet. They’ve also developed the cloud-based transcoding software needed to make it simple and fast for users to distribute their live sports content to devices, ranging from desktop and laptop computers, to media tablets and smartphones.
Taking the plunge
The origins of YouTube’s accelerated involvement in the delivery of live sports over the Internet, stem from two sporting spectaculars: the 2012 London Olympics and Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s historic space leap from a pressurized capsule hoisted 24 miles above the earth’s surface by a helium balloon.
For the Olympics, NBC partnered with YouTube, which provided its Internet video player and live-streaming infrastructure to support worldwide distribution of more than 3,000 hours of live event coverage, interviews, and other exclusives on NBCOlympics.com. Likewise, Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos live supersonic jump into the history books in October 2012, drew intense public interest. And, while the event itself took less than three hours from balloon liftoff, to the safe touchdown of Baumgartner on terra firma, the spectacle garnered more than 8 million YouTube views – a record for the most concurrent live streaming views ever.
“What these two big projects did for YouTube was to help us make the platform very robust,” says Tobin. The events and the public’s reaction to them also brought immediate credibility and visibility to YouTube as a legitimate platform for the delivery of live sporting events.
“Both the NBC Olympics and the Stratos Jump streaming coverage were nominated for outstanding, innovative sports coverage,” says Tobin. “While NBC Olympics did not win that Emmy, the YouTube Stratos Jump did.”
Recognizing this opportunity to tap into a previously underserved vertical market with a proven Internet delivery infrastructure, YouTube assembled a team of people, including Tobin, who were focused on securing partnerships with leagues, teams and universities –basically, any entity that had a sports event people wanted to watch online.
The result has been a steady progression of successes securing partnerships with those wishing to live stream sports, starting with premium partners such as MLB, the NBA-D League, Major League Lacrosse and the National Women’s Soccer League, and progressing to any sports entity with 1,000 YouTube channel subscribers, such as collegiate athletic teams and leagues. And most recently, to any entity with barely more than 100 channel subscribers, such as high school sports and even bowling leagues.
Video production & streaming
With such a diverse base of new sports partners, YouTube understood there exists a wide range of video production experience and goals. “It might be completely sufficient having a single camera on the sidelines for a local soccer league,” explains Tobin. “That league is just trying to address fans and parents who want to watch a game online, and that setup may be a perfectly good production environment for that audience.”
Other sports organizations, however, wish to replicate with their YouTube Sports presence the video production value people are accustomed to seeing on television. For this group of YouTube Sports partners, multi-camera live game coverage with TV-style switcher effects and transitions, graphics, lower-thirds, slow-motion replay and other higher-end production elements is necessary. In some instances, Tobin says, these sports organizations want to step up their production quality to attract viewers. In others, they simply are trying to match the production quality already being achieved by broadcasters producing some of their games for TV.
“The ACC Digital Network, and a lot of our partners who put half of their games on TV and half on YouTube, are good examples of cases where having production value that is equivalent to TV is a must,” explains Tobin.
Another example is Major League Lacrosse. “They have quality standards that they live by,” explains Tobin. “They can’t really reduce the quality just to put it on YouTube. They want their product seen in the best possible light and in the best possible way.”
However, these sorts of TV productions traditionally come with high price tags. It’s not uncommon for a multi-camera TV production truck packed with all of the high-definition technology needed to present top-notch live television sports productions to cost tens of thousands of dollars to rent for a single game.
“In the past, that has been prohibitive,” says Tobin. “Fortunately, products like NewTek TriCaster and 3Play have lowered the barrier of entry into this space. Where you used to have to pull in a satellite truck, now all you need is an Internet drop, a TriCaster and 3Play, and you are good to go to have instant replays, green screens, and all of the things you’ve come to expect with cable TV-produced content.”
TriCaster allows sports entities to enhance the production quality of their shows, whether they are being live streamed or broadcast, without requiring the capital outlay needed to buy traditional video gear, or incurring the operating expense necessary to roll in a TV production truck.
“While YouTube has a policy of remaining ‘platform agnostic, and not recommending technology’ in an effort to ‘play fair,’ says Tobin, “we do acknowledge the platforms that are working well for us,” adding that “we work with companies like NewTek to ensure compatibility with our network.”
Beyond production technology, for YouTube Sports to reach its full potential, there is a need to make the transcoding process required to live stream content to multiple types of platforms “as frictionless and as low-cost as possible,” explains Tobin.
“One of the key features we rolled out this year was the ability to transcode in the cloud. In the past, if folks wanted to get their content online, they would have to create multiple bit rates – perhaps 1080p if they wanted to do something really high quality, but also 360p for mobile,” he says.
To simplify the process, YouTube developed its cloud transcoding in a way that lets users submit one high-resolution stream that is transcoded into all of the other bit rates needed to distribute to the various viewing options consumers use today, and thus guarantee compatibility and reach.
“We realize the YouTube generation wants its content on the closest device at hand. That might be a cell phone; that might be a tablet; that might be a laptop computer,” says Tobin.
While sports organizations setting up their own YouTube channels to stream live events benefit from building their brand, extending their reach and better serving the needs of their fans, there’s also a financial component to YouTube Sports that can make the effort a revenue generator that helps to defray production costs or even produce profits.
“It is a revenue-share deal that is supported by ads, and those ads can come from a lot of different places,” explains Tobin. “In general, Google sells ads on YouTube. So any YouTube partner who signs up, Google sells ads on their behalf. There is a revenue split that typically is 55 percent to the partner and 45 percent to YouTube.” There are also provisions for YouTube Sports partners who sell their own commercials, he adds.
Tobin acknowledges the non-financial benefits of partnering with YouTube Sports can be just as important, if not more important, than revenue to a sports organization, depending on its goals. For instance, greater visibility for a collegiate athletic program – particularly at small schools or for sports not typically televised - can pay handsome rewards when it comes to player recruitment. Another benefit, Tobin says, is deepening the bonds sports programs or teams have with their fans by giving those fans a way to watch games not scheduled to air on TV. Streaming also gives fans a way to keep up with the latest team developments during streamed coach interview shows and feature reports.
Connecting on this level, via YouTube Sports, with fans and recruits can be game-changing events for teams and athletic programs looking to achieve a higher level of success. Not only does the YouTube Sports offer these organizations a way to bypass traditional television gatekeepers, but it also gives them an avenue to reach their fans consistently over the long haul.
Fade to black
For Tobin, who has spent most of his career as a software developer and designer, his involvement with YouTube Sports has surprised him by what he describes as “the art form of doing a good broadcast.”
“Whether it’s the announcing, the technical aspects or instant replays – all things that make a production engaging - there is a big difference in the sort of entertainment value that is delivered, if it is done right,” he says.
Granted, YouTube Sports appeals to a broad group of audiences, so it depends on what the expectations are for any given group of viewers. But having access to powerful, yet affordable television production technology, like TriCaster, that is simple to learn and use, means even those involved in live streaming sporting events to YouTube channels with only hundreds of viewers can produce an end product that is engaging and better informs the audience.
“I have learned that a lot of folks think they can become the next broadcaster and bring that level of quality they are used to seeing on television,” says Tobin. With tools like TriCaster, they can satisfy those ambitions.
In Tobin’s view, the availability of powerful production tools like TriCaster and 3Play, that are affordable, could not have come at a better time for YouTube Sports. He says, “I think we have hit that interesting sweet spot in time where bandwidth is coming down in price and becoming more accessible, and the cost of doing a decent production and the skill level needed to do that is also coming down.”
He adds, “I believe sports is the next big, untapped video frontier on the Internet. As we keep pushing down costs and increasing quality, I think we will see more, and more, interesting times.
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