SVG Digital Chat: Eric Black, VP, Technology, NBC Sports Group
It has been another wildly successful spring for NBC Sports Group, with spectacular linear ratings and digital use across such varied events as horse racing’s Triple Crown, the Stanley Cup Final, the final rounds of the French Open tennis tournament, and Championship Sunday in the Barclay’s Premier League.
NBC Sports has established itself as one of the leaders in live sports streaming, blazing the trail for major-event offerings at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Today, NBC Sports Live Extra is a go-to destination, and the company continues to evolve the app with more offerings across multiple devices.
In the first edition of SVG Digital Chat, we catch up with Eric Black, VP, technology, NBC Sports Group, and one of the key minds behind how events like Sunday Night Football, the Olympics, the Barclays Premier League, the NHL, NASCAR (as of July 4), and more get to desktops, tablets, and smartphones. He discusses offering more-immersive content to users, how streaming even smaller events helps prepare for tent-pole events, and his excitement about connected devices.
The digital side of sports production and distribution has been difficult to figure out, but NBC Sports has NBC Sports Live Extra and has streamed Olympics successfully (and it was one of the first major events to feature a digital-streaming strategy). How have you guys responded to the digital evolution?
In this industry, every 12 months, it feels like we go through a new evolution. Going back to Beijing [2008 Summer Olympics] and our first season of streaming Sunday Night Football, you are getting new technical innovation. When you go back to the  Vancouver Olympics, where we streamed, the iPad didn’t even exist. Then, in London [in 2012], we streamed every event we had, which was a first time for that. You’re starting to see a pretty profound evolution, but I think the velocity is staying the same; it’s just branching into new areas. And I think connected/OTT is that new area where we are starting to see substantial growth across the board for live streaming on the Internet.
Since the branding of NBC Sports Live Extra, how have you seen its capabilities grow, and how have users been able to benefit? Whether it’s additional camera angles on Premier League matches or live-streaming essentially any event during the Olympics, where is NBC Sports Live Extra in its maturation? Where would you like to see it go over the next couple of years?
I’ve been saying this for nine years, but I still think we’re in the early days here. I think we’ve got one of the most mature products on the market, but I still think it’s an early day for the technology. That’s true for everyone.
We’re just starting to do a lot of things like data visualization, enhancing the experience of linear television, and customizing the digital viewing experience. You’ve got connected devices that we’ve launched about a month ago, [not only] expanding [consumption of] sports but offering more immersion around a sport. So how do we complement the broadcast experience through multiple camera angles, data overlays, rich visualizations? How do we get deeper into the sport [covered]?
What’s your take on the Premier League property? NBC Sports just finished its second season with it. A lot of times, where we’re talking about digital, you are referencing a “second screen” or a “third screen,” but there are a lot of cases, especially in English Premier League coverage, where that was the first screen for people watching certain matches. What was unique about that experience, and how have you guys found your sea legs in these first two years of bringing a property like this to the U.S.?
The Premier League is a unique property and not so dissimilar from some of the Olympics, [although it was] not just for 17 days but for an entire season. The question was, how do we start to bring content that’s not available at all as a traditional linear broadcast, whether that’s tactical cam or it’s matches that don’t make air just because of the volume? How do you not only bring them to a device but bring them to the device that [fans] actually want to consume it on? That’s something that we are looking pretty heavily at. What device are you consuming it on, and how can we bring data around that device? You’ve seen a lot of things like data overlays and player cards on our desktop experience. How do we start to make that extensive and accessible and bring deeper content to viewers regardless of their viewing platform?
A really big property is about to return to NBC Sports on July 4: NASCAR. Are you able to divulge any digital plans in store?
It’s going to be a really, really great property for us both on air and digitally. There will be information coming out on that over the next couple of weeks, so we can’t really talk about it just yet. But [as in] the past, you are going to see a pretty substantial offering that should be a great user experience.
How about Sunday Night Football? That’s further off, but are you cooking up anything new to make its streaming even more interactive than in the past?
Unfortunately, probably the same answer as NASCAR. I probably shouldn’t talk about things that far out. But I can say we will definitely be bringing a new immersive experience. We really want to drive innovation there.
To go even further into the future, though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about Rio 2016. Just over one year away from the next Summer Olympics, how are digital plans looking?
They are looking great, actually. I think we’re well prepared for it. [For] the scale of the operations that we’re doing, [as in] previous Olympics, we’ve got key tent-pole partners in place. And we’ve become accustomed to delivering 60-100 events per week. Getting reps is certainly a good thing, but it also helps us evolve the platform [in] other sports and gets us physically and technologically ready for an event like Rio.
Will you encourage digital use differently for Rio than you did at, say, London or Sochi? Rio is expected to be amazing for linear because a lot of big events will be happening in prime time, whereas, with London and Sochi, there was a big need for streaming because a lot of events took place while people were at work in the U.S. Do you direct viewers to linear or digital differently as a result?
We saw this in London: the Summer Olympics is such a massive event that — I’m speaking historically here — how we promote content is something that we give a lot of thought to just because of the volume of content available over the 17 days. We are making sure the linear and digital offerings work hand in hand so that we’re capitalizing on a great end-user experience. The volume of content makes it a unique event, and we know that we need to promote events and platforms and make discoverability [easy].
You mentioned that we’re still in the early stages of digital. As a result, a lot of content creators are pulling in all of this new user data. A lot of people in the industry are saying, “We’re getting all of this data. Now we need to figure out what to do with it.” Has NBC Sports started to make decisions based on the data that you are getting from your digital platforms?
I think we are. You’ve got to listen to the viewer, and the more data points that we have, the better informed we are on product and technology decisions and how we’re delivering content to users. We look at that pretty extensively. How we reach and engage a fan is ultimately the most important thing to us. So the data is critical in informing us, and you’re right, we are getting a lot more visibility in data than we were, say, nine years ago. I think, nine years from now, we’ll probably be saying something very different, too.
With events ranging from the Super Bowl and the Olympics to mid-major regular-season college basketball games, how is NBC Sports prepared technologically to meet the challenges of varying levels of scale?
The key to scale is, there are two different kinds of scale. One is Super Bowl- or Olympics-level scale: you have a massive amount of concurrent viewers on a platform at a given time. Second is the number of events that you are concurrently distributing at a given time. What we are building is a really advanced ecosystem and streaming infrastructure to allow us to bring the power of the Super Bowl and the Olympics to any-size event. Frankly, we are looking at some of the coverage we have done wrapping up the Stanley Cup, and we’re bringing every piece of technology and learning that we have to every event that we do. So I don’t know if it’s a question of scale per se, because we are treating everything like it is the Olympics or the Super Bowl. That’s really the only way to be successful in this industry right now.
What new thing on the digital side are you, personally, excited about? Whether it’s something you are doing at NBC or something happening generally in the industry, what has you excited?
Right now, I would say the overall industry trend of connected devices. [Looking] at consumption patterns on a device whose sole purpose is to consume video, I think there’s a lot of power and potential in those devices. I’m speaking a bit personally here, but I’m really excited about the growth in that space [and] where platforms like that could go.