How to stream and monetize live sports the smart way

ScottGoldmanBy Scott Goldman, Principal Product Manager

According to a study by The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 64% of fans don’t live near their favorite team, and 73% don’t live near their favorite player. This trend, combined with the ever-more-popular practice of cutting the cord, spells growing opportunities in live streaming sports.

As sports fandom becomes an increasingly long-distance pastime, over-the-top (OTT) platforms need to ensure they’re up to the task. They’ve got a double challenge ahead: first, to stream live sports to millions of viewers with the high-quality fans expect; and second, to effectively monetize an aspect of their content that is only going to get more popular over time.

Here’s how a top-flight OTT service works to tackle both challenges at the same time.

Treat live streams differently from video-on-demand (VOD)

In pre-programmed VOD, the system requests all ads for a given video up front. So the moment a user presses play on an on-demand video, the system already knows every pre-roll, mid-roll and post-roll ad that will be played for the duration of the program.

However, with live video, ad requests happen in real time. It’s impossible to know in advance when an inning or quarter will end, or when time-outs will be taken. Sometimes, there will be unexpected breaks in play, as in the case of a rain delay. A video streaming service needs to be able to deliver ads during those breaks to ensure the TV-like experience viewers expect.

Scale to millions of viewers without losing quality

For a best-in-class live streaming service, scalability for ad delivery is paramount. While different viewers might watch the same on-demand video at different times, viewers of a live sports event tune in all at once, which means the stream may need to be delivered simultaneously to a million viewers.

At Verizon Digital Media Services, that “million” is not a hypothetical, but a reality whenever we’re streaming a live sports event. To have our platform suffer service degradation under the load would be unacceptable. Viewers expect the same smooth, TV-like experience with live video that they get with our VOD services, and it’s our job to make that happen.

That’s why Verizon Digital Media Services has gone to extensive lengths to add stability and scalability to our platform. In the last year, we have explored ways to isolate ad traffic within its own infrastructure in our cloud—called an ad proxy—so that it can scale independently of our content delivery system. This allows us to optimize server size, the structure of our code base and other characteristics specific to ad traffic, improving our efficiency.

At the same time, it lets our content delivery scale much more broadly, since that infrastructure no longer has to execute ad requests, parse ad responses, deliver tracking beacons to measure how well those ads are performing for advertisers, and so on. These changes let us handle those millions of simultaneous ad requests without strain on our systems.

Customize for niche streams and viewer interests

One key advantage of the era of live streaming is that it has made it easier for distant audiences to view niche sporting events, like cricket and curling, in the comfort of their homes.

Monetizing live streams of those niche sports events requires a different approach to advertising from what most broadcasters are used to. Today, most video ads on premium OTT are sold against the content itself, just like ads on traditional TV. If a brand buys a 30-second ad spot during a championship game, every viewer of that game sees the same ad. However, with the explosion of video content available online, that approach simply doesn’t scale. Human advertisers can’t sell ads in the U.S. for every cricket game broadcast that airs too early for Americans. Even in much more mainstream broadcasts, there are often gaps where ad inventory remains unsold.

That’s where programmatic ads come in. At Verizon Digital Media Services, we’re able to backfill live streams programmatically, filling in the gaps between traditional spots with automated 1-to-1 targeted advertising. We are able to provide personalized ads in real time. We use individual data, including a viewer’s IP address and device type, in our ad server algorithm. Our platform is robust enough to learn what’s relevant to a viewer when proving ads during live event streams. This intelligent system also ensures that users receive a variety of ads instead of yawning through the same repeated commercial.

As cord cutting continues, viewers are increasingly turning to OTT platforms to watch their favorite live sporting events. Through the ability to serve 1-to-1 targeted advertising against live events, provide custom and niche content and ads, and the power to scale to millions of simultaneous ad requests, the very best OTT platforms will rise to meet fans’ expectations.

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