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Opinion | Four sports broadcasting predictions for 2022

Charles Kraus, Limelight's senior product marketing manager, looks ahead to what we can expect from the sports media industry.

14 Dec 2021 Charles Kraus

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Armchair athletes have a lot to cheer about as we head into 2022.

In fact, predictions from Verified Market Research, indicate that the business of streaming live sports is expected to grow from US$22 billion in 2021 to more than US$87 billion by 2028 – a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) rate of 21 per cent.

Even though more fans are spending more hours watching live sports online, increased viewership can’t explain this level of growth. So, what else is fuelling these optimistic projections? Three things, firstly new innovative ways to engage viewers; secondly, new ways to retain viewers; and finally, new ways to grow the subscriber base.

It all starts with delivery

The key infrastructure for delivering live streams is a global content delivery network (CDN) with capacity to distribute to audiences anywhere. The network must have sufficient capacity to support high bitrate delivery and must continuously expand to keep up with growing demand.

Global CDNs will be increasing capacity in existing points of presence (PoPs) and adding new PoPs in more locations as warranted by regional demand. There have been a few major sports events that were delivered by live streaming only – not as a complement to a broadcast. Viewers of these expect the experience to be just like broadcast. As the number of such streaming only events increase, it is critical for the distribution infrastructure keep up with capacity demands.

The investment in 4K starts to pay dividends

As stream distribution capacity increases, it will enable more 4K content to be delivered to viewers in more regions. As an update on the status of live 4K content viewing late in 2021, it’s still a relatively small percentage of online consumption. Major sports events are seeing single digit percentage of viewers watching in 4K but is trending upward. One of the reasons is there are limited 4K steaming options. 4K production requires massive investments in new cameras, encoders and production infrastructure. As we enter 2022 it is expected that more live event production capability will be 4K enabled. Predictions are that by mid 2022, large sports events could see 20% of streams delivered in 4K.

But is 8K ever going to be a reality?

The Tokyo Olympics debuted 8K to the world, with about 200 out of the total of 9,500 hours of programming. So, we’re not there yet. Large investments are still being made to get 4K infrastructure in place, so it’s too early to expect much action with 8K. But the demo of 8K with HDR I saw on a very large TV recently was mind-blowing, so stay tuned.

Solving delivery latency unleashes real fan engagement

Another issue to address is delivery latency of live streams, which is typically up to 30 seconds or more. With broadcast latency around five seconds, many multi-screen viewing applications are inhibited by this gap. Adoption of low latency HLS and DASH technology using chunked transfer encoding (CTE) should start to gain traction in 2022, but there are headwinds as there is a lot of compatibility testing required of encoders, players and CDNs to deliver CTE end to end in the delivery workflow. As low latency adoption ramps up during 2022, it will unlock several new applications that will bring more engaging viewing experiences.

Four major technology innovations promise to dazzle live stream viewers

1. Customisable camera angles: I expect 2022 to see a rise in the uptake of new streaming technologies as companies in this market compete to retain existing customers and win more viewers. One of these is providing multiple camera angle views, including drone cams above the field, to viewers to chose from. Higher bandwidth connections to support multiple stream delivery, and low latency are required to provide a seamless experience as views are selected while watching.

2. Group game binges: Another viewer focused application is watch together functionality. Sports fans that enjoy watching matches together, but are remote from each other, are the target for platforms that several sports leagues are testing which provide a way for small groups of fans to live stream a match and chat live with each other. The key to making this work is having the streams and the broadcast delivered with the same latency, so no matter how each member is watching the match, everyone sees the live action at the same time. Something to watch for in 2022.

3. Live action sports betting: Potentially the most lucrative from a monetisation standpoint is live sports betting. Several major sports leagues are investigating and partnering with players in the sports book industry to offer ways for fans to place bets on various outcomes during live action while they are watching. This is a very complex undertaking involving compliance rules and a patchwork of online betting legal issues in every region. Despite the complications, it is certainly an area to watch as very big players with huge budgets are working together to make it happen.

4. Real-time alerts to engage premium subscription fans: On the other end of the monetisation spectrum are fan engagement ideas that are being tested. One of them is a key moment premium subscription option that would send an alert to a fan’s mobile device that a game changing play by a team they follow just happened, with a link in the message they can click on to see a replay. Or, in a tied match in final minutes, an invite to join the live stream to see the final minutes for a small micro payment. Just recently there have been QR codes popping up on TV screens that when captured by the viewer’s mobile camera, takes them to a website where they may see special offers, or make a purchase. Initial feedback from advertisers seems to be enthusiastic. Lots of potential for this. One problem that has to be addressed quickly is how this would work for a viewer watching on a mobile device, where the QR code is embedded in the video on the screen.

2022 could be an exciting year of sports viewing innovation if even just a few of these predictions pan out. The move by clubs, sports leagues and broadcasters to offer direct-to-consumer (DTC) streaming services with live sports will also boost demand for these services.

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