NFL’s Streaming Future Still in TV Time-Out

When Yahoo hosted the first free, worldwide live-stream of an NFL game last October, the tech giant pulled in more than 15 million unique viewers. The NFL and Yahoo touted the number as a huge success, even though many observers noted that in TV terms the total audience barely cracked 2 million. And let’s not forget, this was a Sunday morning (dawn on the West Coast) tilt between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills playing in London. Not exactly Bears-Packers at Lambeau.

Even so, according to Joe Depalo, senior VP of technical operations of Limelight Networks — one of several content delivery networks (CDNs) that helped Yahoo stream the game (including Akamai and Level 3) — Yahoo’s expectations were much, much higher than those 15 million uniques. Going in, they were anticipating the same audience as a typical NFL broadcast, Depalo said, even though Limelight did its best to warn them otherwise.

The online stats are under an even stronger microscope heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl 50. The NFL is reportedly vetting companies like Apple, Google, Verizon and Amazon to serve as digital partners for streaming of regular-season Thursday night games, and CBS is preparing to deliver a live-stream Sunday across a record number of devices. Depalo and other industry veterans are putting up a collective caution sign: At this point, they say, streaming NFL games can only be considered an addition to traditional broadcasts, not a replacement.

“There’s not enough infrastructure in place to do what they want to do,” Depalo said. “Soon there will be events on this scale that will be [reliant on the] Internet. But right now there are too many choke points."

“Imagine if everyone on your block streamed the Super Bowl at the same time. And if [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell decided to [exclusively] stream the second half of the Super Bowl. The Internet would melt down.”

Stephane Bourque, president and CEO of broadband software company Incognito Software Systems, said CDNs and Internet service providers (ISPs) aren’t prepared for everything a streaming-heavy NFL push will entail. “You’re going to lose football fans if you aren’t prepared,” he said, “and it’s hard to change overnight.”

He said that if the NFL wants to stream games regularly, both CDNs and ISPs will need to make major infrastructure investments, and soon. “4K Ultra High-Def is going to be the deal breaker, because the system just won’t be able to handle it, and providers need to be aware of that,” Bourque said. ”It’s going to take up 2.5-3.5 times the bandwidth — and sports are already hard to compress — and they need to start planning on that.”

Joe Martin, managing analyst of Adobe Digital Index, said CBS and other NFL partners are figuring out that there’s a “demand for mobile and smart TV access” for the Super Bowl and other NFL content. He pointed to data showing 50% of millennials saying they would use a connected devices to watch the Super Bowl.

 “We’re not saying they’re going away from traditional TV, it’s just that streaming is filling the gap,” Martin said.