Web Sports Enters HD Arena

Networks and leagues hope hi-def streaming boosts viewing times and revenue
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Ten years after U.S. networks began producing major league sports coverage in high-definition, HD sports has become ubiquitous. Now, networks and sports leagues are looking to bring the same experience to the Web by stepping up the quality of their online streaming, including the production of live HD streams for sports such as college football and basketball. The belief is that delivering higher-quality video will lead to longer viewing times and thus boost Web advertising and/or subscription revenues.

While definitions of video quality on the Web tend to be subjective and engineers maintain there is no true HD video being streamed today, picture quality on the Web has unquestionably improved dramatically in the last two years. The 480-line-progressive, DVD-quality standard-def format is now commonplace, and 720-line-progressive-scan HD is quickly becoming the standard for premium fare.

The jump in quality is due to a combination of improved compression software, more powerful computer microprocessors and steadily increasing broadband speeds. Consequently, the ability to have a “lean-back” experience and enjoy a game on a PC or laptop screen has driven the growth of subscription-based businesses like Major League Baseball's MLB.com and the National Basketball Association's NBA League Pass Broadband.

Also benefiting is ad-supported, free sports content such as the thousands of hours of live and on-demand coverage that NBC Universal delivered last August through NBCOlympics.com, and the National Football League games streamed live on NFL.com this fall. Some tech-savvy users have even connected their PCs to their hi-def TV sets to facilitate living-room viewing.

Much of the Web video improvement has been driven by “adaptive streaming” technology, which provides instant startup times and no buffering by adapting the encoding rate of the video stream in real time based on changes in the speed of a consumer's broadband connection. By avoiding buffering, the viewing experience stays seamless.

Adaptive streaming, which relies on constant communication between a Web server and a software client on a consumer's PC, was pioneered in the TV industry by Adobe Flash video specialist Move Networks to deliver high-quality streaming for programmers like ABC, Fox and ESPN. It has since been incorporated into Silverlight, the Web video technology developed by Microsoft to better compete with Flash (Microsoft calls it “smooth streaming”). Silverlight was used by NBC for its Olympics streaming coverage and by MLB.com last season, though MLB.com announced last week that it will use Flash in 2009.

Programmers are gravitating toward live HD streaming, says Move Networks VP of marketing David Rice. Move is handling 500 live events this month, most of them sporting events, with a handful of concerts.

“What's driving it is quality,” Rice says. “I do think people see the value of having as TV-like, as HD-like an experience as they can get.”

ESPN is using Move's adaptive streaming technology to power the video on ESPN360.com, its broadband network that features streaming coverage of college football, college basketball, professional soccer and other sports. The delivered bitrates start at 768 kilobits per second for standard-def video and 2.5 megabits per second (Mbps) for hi-def streaming, but are constantly adjusted based on network traffic. ESPN360.com also has a new video player that delivers true full-screen capability for the first time.

“What we are trying to achieve is TV-quality video delivered on the Internet,” says Damon Phillips, VP of ESPN360.com.

Move has delivered video at bitrates as high as 3.8 Mbps for a 720p live stream, and has tested as high as 4 Mbps.

“No customer has deployed it yet, though,” Rice says. “I think in their mind, 720p at around 2 megabits is a high-quality feed they're comfortable with.”

One of the reasons to not go higher is that only a small percentage of consumers have laptops and PCs with the power to process higher-quality feeds. That's why Fox Sports has stuck to SD streaming so far, according to Ed Bunnell, VP of programming and executive producer for FoxSports.com. “For us, it's just trying to cast the widest net we can to get the largest audiences to go sell advertising against,” Bunnell says.

Another limitation is consumer broadband speeds, though they are steadily improving, according to data from leading content-delivery network Akamai, which delivers Web streams for ESPN360.com, NFL.com, NBA.com and MLB.com. Akamai's internal tracking shows that 26% of U.S. broadband connections today are faster than 5 Mbps, and 64% are faster than 2 Mbps.

“We're at the tipping point where the majority of people are over the two-meg threshold,” says Tim Napoleon, Akamai's chief strategist for digital media, who expects to see more and more HD streaming for sports. “A lot of broadcasters have a complete HD workflow now, and it's very easy to take that and repurpose it to HD for the Web.”

MLB.com hasn't done HD streaming yet, but is thinking about offering a 720-line-progressive service for next season, says Joe Inzerillo, senior VP of multimedia and distribution for MLB.com. One driver is that it will now have access to hi-def backhauls, thanks to the launch of corporate cousin MLB Network.

Still, Inzerillo isn't sure whether MLB.com will offer HD streaming in 2009: “What I'm trying to weigh is if I make a 3-megabit, 720p feed for next year, is that going to give enough lift [in subscriptions] to offset the streaming cost?”

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