Canada’s Sportsnet Creates Direct-to-Consumer Offering

Sportsnet Now provides subscribers live streams of six of the network’s channels

Sports fans in Canada no longer need a cable subscription to view their favorite matches live. All they need is a $24.99-per-month subscription to Sportsnet Now. The country’s largest sports network has made the bold decision to create a direct-to-consumer offering that sidesteps cable. That’s all the more surprising since Sportsnet is owned by cable operator Rogers Media, a subsidiary of Rogers Communications.

IMG_5720“We are playing by the innovator’s-dilemma rules and trying to be innovative even if it is going to be disruptive,” explains Pary Bell, VP, digital media Sportsnet. “The old saying is, if we don’t cannibalize ourselves, someone else will cannibalize us.” The intent isn’t to disrupt the pay-TV industry, he says, but to reach “cord-nevers” who wouldn’t sign up for cable anyway.

Launched on April 1, Sportsnet Now offers six of the network’s seven channels as live streams (Sportsnet Ontario, East, Pacific, West, ONE, and 360). Only a premium soccer channel is excluded. The big attractions are NHL hockey and Toronto Blue Jays baseball. The network also offers Thursday-night NFL games, the NBA, and such events as the Tour de France and the Grand Slam of Curling.

The direct-to-consumer offering was built in a blazing six weeks, completed partly in-house and partly with the assistance of NeuLion. The in-house team created the iOS and Android apps, then integrated the NeuLion API; it also created the login system. NeuLion handles backend encoding, transcoding, and quality-of-service elements. The only other vendor was Toronto-based Digiflare, which created the Xbox application.

Essential to pulling off the whirlwind development was the decision to launch with a minimum viable product (MVP). Creating a fully featured offering would take far longer, the execs reasoned, and, since this product is the first of its kind, they couldn’t be sure what features would matter most to consumers. Going with an MVP let them launch quickly, then learn from customer demands how they should proceed.

“One of the key things was that we convinced the media group to go with the minimal viable product,” Bell explains. “Thinking about things differently than what media normally does, going out with MVP actually made us focus on the art of possible for what we could choose with the [launch] date of April 1. We went out with discipline and created a feature set that was within the MVP and not necessarily a full-blown, change-the-world kind of product.”

That minimum offering includes lots of live sports streaming as well as live streaming of several Sportsnet original shows. What it doesn’t include is on-demand playback or highlights. Viewers can roll back a certain amount of time in a live stream, but that’s all. Although Sportsnet plans to release another iteration quickly, its development hasn’t started yet. Bell and his team are studying how viewers use the service. Mobile viewers log on to get caught up, Bell notes, but don’t stick around for long. Apple TV viewers, on the other hand, will watch for hours.

One thing Bell plans to add soon is “overflow content,” matches that don’t fit in the Sportsnet schedule. That way they can bring those games to fans live, not on tape-delay. The streaming option will overcome the limitations of linear TV, he says. The other big addition planned is VOD.

Reducing latency is a continuing challenge for the service. No one wants to read tweets about a game-winning play, only to see the action a minute later. At the moment, Sportsnet Now has latency between 30 and 45 seconds.

“We want to bring that number down as low as possible,” Bell says. “NeuLion’s made huge improvements. We worked with them last year on Gamecenter Live; the latency was up in the 90-second area. It’s been consistently brought down in the 30- to 45-second area. Big improvement, but I do think that we have more room to improve there.” Working with its parent company, Sportsnet will try using edge caching to store content closer to viewers.

Sportsnet Now will be a vastly different product in a year’s time, with expanded sports rights and many new features. The company might have launched a minimum viable product, but it won’t stay that way for long.

“We’re spending a lot of time looking and listening,” Bell says. “We’re putting more emphasis and investment into improving the experience and trying to grow the audience base for our digital products.”

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