Tech Focus: Streaming Sports — DIY Streamers Build Their Own Niches
With gear from prosumer to near-broadcast, entrepreneurs cover a wide range of sports
While major networks have been building out their own streaming infrastructures, the DIY side of the business has also been busy, with entrepreneurs establishing one-stop workflow solutions that take the feeds from high schools, small colleges, and (very) minor leagues to create professional-looking online presences for games.“We’ve done everything from the Westmoreland Sports Network in Pennsylvania, which does football and wrestling, to softball games from the Netherlands,” says Meridix CEO Tyler Feret. His company picks up internet streams from a range of clients — local scholastic teams like Texas scholastic streamer SportsGram, junior leagues, regional radio and television broadcasters — and basically becomes their backend workflow. Services include streaming optimization for various types of mobile devices, broadband environments, apps such as Twitch, and proprietary apps (which Meridix can build for clients). Other features include library services that let sports clients archive games that fans can retrieve on demand, along with social-media integration, including chats, alerts, and highlight reels.
According to Feret, Meridix will also provide some basic types of advice to make the original content look and sound more professional. Among the advice are suggested microphone choices and placement to pick up ambient sound, which he says goes a long way toward emulating major-network production values.
“People are paying a lot more attention to sound for their sports streams,” he contends, suggesting that the recent explosive growth of podcasts and audiobooks, as well as hi-res audio music-streaming services like Tidal, has put new emphasis on quality audio for streaming. “We have a number of clients, such as internet radio stations, that just publish audio.”
Three Levels of Streaming
Greg Ellis, COO of streamer Dacast, describes a striated streaming landscape that has plenty to choose from, technology-wise, at every level, each able to access the company’s different tiers of streaming power. The basic tier —which he refers to, without irony, as WEVA, for Wedding & Event and Videographers Association International — uses off-the-shelf AV technology to produce respectable online shows for such sports as Ultimate Frisbee. That sport has two professional leagues in North America; one, the AUDL, has had contracts with ESPN in the past, and its nationals, for which Dacast has been the online provider, attract more than 100,000 viewers.
“For the most part,” he says, “[this tier] will use prosumer cameras and microphones, free codecs on a laptop, and a hotspot to stream through. The goal is to get the event online with minimal kit.”
Ellis, who started in television on the design team that developed DirecTV, adds that, while prosumer cameras like 4K Go Pros can produce high-quality images, streamers tend to be laissez-faire about audio.
“Generally,” he notes, “noise issues like wind keep them from going much beyond a shotgun microphone on a camera.”
Streaming sports’ middle rank is found in second- and third-tier college sports and lower-level conferences of certain leagues, such as the Midwest 10-school Horizon League. They deploy a higher level of equipment, such as Tricaster and Wirecast. Streaming can include noise-canceling microphones, which are often used for separate audio-only streams that serve as teasers for video of games and series, which are usually behind league paywalls.
“You’ll also see this level streaming at multiple bitrates for mobile and broadband users,” Ellis says. “The productions here are starting to look more like network sports productions. [They use] maybe even some green-screen stuff but no remote trucks or satellite uplinks.”
Streaming’s top tier is virtually indistinguishable from linear-television sports production, at least at the local level, often done by the same contract production companies, such as Beyond Pix, that supply sports to local non–network-affiliate broadcast stations.
“These are often former network people, who’ll do shows like NASCAR from Sonoma,” says Ellis. “They’ll be using an appliance-based encoder instead of a software-based one, and you’ll see full-blown broadcast cameras, sometimes even a RED.”
He expects the top two tiers to eventually merge, in part because the technology they use covers them both and because broadband will become faster, cheaper, and more ubiquitous. At the same time, however, he also sees some network broadcasters pursuing some of the same sports content that independent streamers have been cultivating.
“You see ESPN3 and even ESPN2 going after Alabama high school football,” he observes. “High school sports have some of the biggest growth of all sports in North America. In some cases, streaming of high school football is being used by collegiate coaches for scouting purposes.”
Ellis suggests that streaming sports will continue to build its own audience, such as his daughter, who keeps up with her alma mater UCLA’s baseball team while living in Seattle.
“Some sports may not necessarily need to pursue [conventional] network sports broadcasts,” he says.
The future of streaming sports may be as distant from conventional network sports as intertwined with it, though aimed at different parts of the sports world. As discussed at SVG’s RSN Summit over the summer, network-level streaming propositions, such as MyTeams by NBC Sports, are drilling deeper into regional sports. However, ESPN and Turner Sports needn’t be nervous about DIY enablers like Meridix, says Feret. But, as a group, they are building an alternative infrastructure for non-mainstream sports (which until recently would have described esports, whose media rights alone are projected to reach nearly $449 million by 2022, according to PwC, on platforms like Twitch).
“In the same way that [MLB Advanced Media] is the infrastructure behind other major-league sports online,” says Feret, noting its work for the WWE Network, ESPN3, and PGA TOUR Live, “we’re trying to be that for everyone else.”