Behind the screens: Inside Sky Sports’ new PPV streaming service

Ahead of Anthony Joshua’s world title defence against Carlos Takam on Saturday, UK pay-TV giant Sky launched the Sky Sports Box Office streaming service in collaboration with digital video technology company NeuLion. SportsPro spoke to NeuLion’s Chris Wagner to understand the challenges involved in building a robust OTT platform and to learn more about the streaming operation on fight night.

Behind the screens: Inside Sky Sports’ new PPV streaming service

When it comes to talking about boxing, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have a conversation without mentioning the name of Anthony Joshua. The world heavyweight champion’s flawless record of 19 victories from 19 fights has revived national – if not global – interest in the sport’s blue riband division, with no shortage of potential suitors lining up to dethrone boxing’s newly crowned king.  

While murmurs of an eye-watering unification bout against the USA’s Deontay Wilder continue to grow louder, the Briton’s attention must temporarily turn to defending his WBA and IBF belts against Carlos Takam at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on Saturday. The Cameroonian stepped in as a late replacement for the injured Kubrat Pulev, whose withdrawal had raised concerns over the potential for a less competitive fight, but the thousands of tickets already sold will have been done so on the assumption that whoever was stood in Joshua’s opposite corner would merely be playing a supporting role.

The 28-year-old’s primary appeal lies not just in his camera-friendly charm, but with his ruthless ability to send his opponents brutally crashing to the canvas. Joshua has never failed to knockout an opponent, and his brawl against Wladimir Klitschko in April this year proved to be one of the great heavyweight bouts of the modern era, with a head-snapping upper cut providing the iconic image that would decorate newspaper back pages, emblazon magazine covers and be shared across social media in the aftermath. 

Shortly after that fight, Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn revealed that the bout had been purchased 1.5 million times on the UK’s Sky Sports Box Office pay-per-view (PPV) service – a British record, and roughly 1.2 million higher than Joshua’s previous three fights on the platform. Meanwhile, US network Showtime recorded an average audience of 659,000 during its live afternoon airing, with German commercial broadcaster RTL securing 10.4 million viewers for the bout.

Joshua's win over Wladimir Klitschko in April broke British PPV records, said promoter Eddie Hearn

Such is Joshua’s unique talent that he is able to bridge the gap between avid and casual boxing fans out of an ability to combine intricate skill with the guarantee of a show-stopping moment. While there is an obvious desire for him to fulfil his sporting potential, there is also a belief among broadcasters that Joshua’s era should be golden in more ways than one.

Along with the fighters themselves, various parties stand to profit from Saturday’s bout, including event promotions company Matchroom Sport, pay-TV giant Sky and the various rights holders around the world.

And then there’s NeuLion, the US-based digital video technology specialists tasked with powering the Sky Sports Box Office streaming service, which will make PPV events available for purchase to non-Sky customers in the UK through Now TV boxes and PC, mobile and tablet devices.

Joshua-Takam will be the first of many big shows planned on the new platform, and while NeuLion’s capabilities will be crucial for getting the stream onto thousands of screens, Chris Wagner (below right), the company’s executive vice president and co-founder, explains that its role is far more multi-faceted than that.

“Sky investigated a number of different partners to help provide some of their content –specifically boxing - as a pay-per-view service to fans with internet devices,” he says. “NeuLion is lucky enough to be the technology platform that they’re using to not only stream the fight, but we are also responsible for the store. This means our platform handles all the digital tickets that fans buy, so the payment transactions are all being processed by NeuLion as well.

“We also build and manage the actual Sky Sports Box Office app that you see on your phone, tablet or computer, so we control the video streaming, the store and the app development fan experience.”

Most significantly, perhaps, is that the company has integrated technology to prevent anyone illegally streaming the bout. A recent survey carried out in the UK by SMG Insight showed that 54 per cent of millennials have watched illegal streams of live sports, while a third admit to regularly watching them. This figure is likely to be even higher when applied to PPV boxing, and Sky will reap the benefits of the security measures NeuLion have put in place.  

“On the security side we actually secure all the streams,” says Wagner, “so whatever browser you’re using to watch the live event on your device we’re able to protect the stream, which is important because as it’s a PPV event, any piracy would mean lost funds for Sky. So in addition to giving people access to the event we also secure it with our digital rights management service.”

Despite closing its doors to illicit streams, the Sky Sports Box Office OTT service will open up the network to a broader market by leveraging both TV and broadband, and Wagner expects one of the biggest challenges on fight night to involve the sheer volume of transactions that will need to be processed in time for the opening bell.

Reliability and scalability, then, are at the heart of a robust OTT platform, and Wagner adds that NeuLion successfully streamed 63,000 live events in 2016 for clients including the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA) and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which has allowed the company to build and enhance a video traffic system to ensure that the technological operation runs smoothly - a process he likens to the live fan experience stewards need to provide at major sports events. 

“With PPV, and especially live events of this magnitude, it’s very different to streaming movies,” Wagner explains. “The reason is that people all show up, buy and connect at the same time because it’s a live event with a start time.

“When you watch on-demand content the usage is pretty spread out. People watch different movies and don’t typically watch the same movie at the same time, so doing live events is very different than subscription on-demand services like Netflix, because you need to be able to support large numbers of people showing up and buying at the same time.

“Much like you see at a football match when everyone queues up to get into the stadium, the NeuLion platform needs to be able to handle that amount of people that all show up at the same time to buy and then watch the event. So in the same way that people queue outside, get in and go to their seats, we’ve been able to do that from an internet live event streaming perspective.”

While NeuLion’s role is very much hands-on, Wagner reveals that his team will not actually be anywhere near the 75,000-seater Principality Stadium on Saturday. Instead, a fully-staffed control centre in London’s hipster haunt of Shoreditch will receive a live feed of the fight from Sky’s production team, then distribute and monitor it to ensure that everything gets delivered the way it should from a quality and support standpoint.

“Sky Sports produces the event for TV, and we take that TV feed into our cloud data centre that sits in the UK,” Wagner says. “So we essentially encode the TV feed and put it into the right kind of internet formats for different devices. Then it also gets prepared into different bit rates, which is then transmitted over a content delivery network, and eventually over to an internet service provider with the consumer.

“Live events are really like TV broadcasts,” he adds, “but we’re just using the internet as the platform for distribution. Our technical operations centre will be staffed during the fight to make sure that all the video feeds and audio feeds that we’re getting go through the content delivery networks that we work with, and then we ultimately monitor how it looks on the device.”

Wagner says NeuLion will handle the video streaming, the store and the app for Sky Sports Box Office 

Fans in the UK will be paying UK£19.95 (US$25.99) for the fight on Saturday and will be expecting a premium product in return for their investment. Indeed, NFL Game Pass’ recent European revamp has served as a reminder that OTT sports products are still a work in progress, after the company that bought Game Pass rights was forced into announcing earlier this month that it will refund its subscribers 20 per cent of their annual fee due to connectivity and technological issues.

Boxing is a sport which can be difficult to keep up with at the best of times, and consumers are unlikely to remain loyal to a platform that transmits a pixelated stream. Wagner, however, envisages no such problems for Sky Sports Box Office, which he says will be equipped with adaptable technology to ensure that customers are always enjoying crystal clear feeds.           

“Regardless of your device, whether you’re on a smart TV, a phone or a tablet, we like to maximise the amount of video quality depending on your internet speed as a consumer,” he explains. “We have the ability to adapt automatically or ‘on the fly’ to the internet speed of the consumer, so we can take as much broadband as we can get, and if any of that broadband gets constrained at all at the consumer’s location then we can adapt to that and move back and forth to ensure that they’re always watching a high quality stream.”

In an increasingly impatient world, however, the promise of a reliable stream isn’t necessarily enough to satisfy a demanding audience, and there is a recognition that once fans have paid for the fight, they need to be given greater control over their viewing habits. This is particularly true of boxing, a sport in which rounds last just three minutes, flashing right hooks are easily missed and replays are in short supply during a linear broadcast. Handing the user full control then, is central to delivering premium paid-for live content, and it’s a demand that Sky Sports Box Office has been built to cater for.

“One of the biggest benefits for consumers is the interactive features that we will have on offer during the fight,” says Wagner. “The player itself offers fans the ability to watch instant replays, in slow motion, rewind and to jump back to live.

“Then it’s about connectivity. Fans can watch the fight live and they can move between devices, so they may be on a phone but then they move over to their computer or another connected device.  It’s that ability to seamlessly connect to anything on the internet and then watch it live that creates an experience very different to traditional television.”

That search for an alternative to traditional television has been in motion for a long time now, and with trends showing that consumers continue to shift from pay-TV to digital platforms, it seems only a matter of time before OTT eventually replaces traditional ways of watching live sports. While the market for one-off PPV live streaming services is perhaps less tested and seems to pose more risks, Saturday’s screening – and Joshua’s profile – will provide the ideal opportunity for Sky to build out a product which, if successful, could quickly eclipse its traditional PPV offering.       

“I think the goal is to create a TV experience regardless of what the screen is in front of your face,” says Wagner, “and I think looking at all the trends around television it’s not really defined anymore as the big square in your living room, it’s whatever screen you might have in your hand or whatever screen happens to be in your face, and Sky Sports Box Office certainly provides a service that fits those kind of market demands.”