YouTube Becomes Significant Player in Sports-Content Distribution

One of the most-watched sports events of the year wasn’t on pay-per-view, cable, or even network television. When much of the world watched Felix Baumgartner make his famous Red Bull Stratos space jump, they were watching it on YouTube.

During the jump on Oct. 14, Claude Ruibal, global head of sports content for YouTube/Google, was taking part in a Google+ hangout with friends, co-workers, and other company partners chatting about the event.

Claude Ruibal, global head of sports content, YouTube

Ruibal knew the event was wildly popular, but he still wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of numbers. The standing record for concurrent streams during a live online event was 500,000, achieved by Google during the London Summer Olympics. At about two hours into Red Bull Stratos, the event was flirting with 4 million concurrent views.

“So is this all good? Is everything going to be OK?” Ruibal somewhat jokingly asked one of his technicians. The answer wasn’t very comforting.

“No,” the technician said. “Actually, when we get to 4 million, we have no idea what’s going to happen. It could all just shut down. We’ve never been here before. We hope we can manage the load.”

Not only were YouTube/Google’s servers able to handle 4 million streams; they were able to accommodate 8 million views, with nearly all viewers watching at either 720 or 1080 resolution. The event has been praised as a technological triumph.

“This just really validated a lot of the work that we put into this,” said Ruibal during a presentation at Covington & Burlington’s Sports Media and Technology conference presented by Sports Business Journal in New York City on Wednesday. “We’ve built a really strong backend CDN, and we think we can handle pretty high traffic loads now in the live environment.”

These days, YouTube is a whole lot more than Chocolate Rain, laughing babies, and skateboard wipeouts. In the sports world, it has grown into a major distribution platform, and that’s largely thanks to the work of Ruibal, who found his way to YouTube/Google after a successful entrepreneurial career that included the founding of Universal Sports.

The online platform’s emergence has led many in the industry to speculate whether YouTube could one day shake up the game of negotiations for exclusive broadcast rights. However, Ruibal is quick to stifle that speculation, stating firmly that YouTube is exclusively in the business of distribution.

“There seems to be some sort of confusion about what we’re doing in sports,” he says. “We’re not in the rights-buying business; we are a distribution company. We partner with rights owners; we partner with broadcasters to help them distribute across our platform using their brand and the awareness that we give to grow their brand.”

The awareness that YouTube offers is staggering. The site receives an average of 800 million unique views a month, and 4 billion hours of content are viewed on YouTube a month.

Ruibal’s vision is to use this power to program to underserved audiences with more-immersive content and to give an opportunity for new and undistributed content to launch.

YouTube won’t create or produce the content for its partners, but, if a league or sport has a finished product to expose to the Internet, YouTube will use branding and metadata to get it in front of the necessary eyes.

“There’s opportunities to talk to a large audience,” Ruibal says. “If there’s somebody who likes your sport in Madagascar, they’re probably not going to go to your URL. They probably don’t even know it exists. YouTube is a global destination where people just go to watch video and search for things that are of interest to them.”

YouTube’s strategy in sports is to build channels. Ruibal foresees that, much in the way cable introduced a proliferation of more–niche-based networks, YouTube can take that to an even higher level on the digital side.

The company has found tremendous success with sports channels like KickTV (a soccer channel partnered with MLS), WWE FanNation, Ride Channel (skateboard content hosted by Tony Hawk), ESPN’s Grantland with Bill Simmons, and the previously mentioned Red Bull channel.

When a league or entity chooses to partner with YouTube, it agrees to a 55-45 revenue share. The channel’s interface is customized to make it distinct from the average YouTube page. In many cases, YouTube is able to market a channel or segment, having partnered with Gillette on European soccer content and AT&T and ESPN on My Highlight, where popular sports home videos on YouTube can make it on to SportsCenter.

“We’re not creators of content, we’re not curators of content,” says Ruibal. “We really try to be additive and not competitive to what’s out there in the marketplace.”

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