Thursday, March 18, 2010

YouTube’s live sports broadcast deal is watershed moment for online video

This post first appeared in VentureBeat

YouTube is taking a major step today with its first live sports broadcast deal. It will be streaming live the Indian Premier League Championships. Such live broadcast deals have hitherto been the bastion of traditional pay TV operators. The Google-owned site signed an agreement with the organizers back in January and retains rights for two seasons.

The IPL is a tournament of a short-form of cricket that has become extremely popular in the last couple of years. The tournament spans 60 matches over the next 45 days. The IPL is currently in its third season, and has already seen runaway success in attracting eyeballs. By acquiring global rights (other than the US market, where Willow TV has the rights) for online streaming, YouTube is testing out a whole new business territory.

The IPL constitutes what are called Twenty20 cricket matches between eight teams made up of players from multiple cricket-playing nations. Revenues from advertising and sponsorship will be shared between Google and IPL, with YouTube offering the content free to consumers. The tournament itself is big money. TV broadcasting rights for 10 years were reportedly purchased by India’s Sony Television Network and Singapore’s World Sports Group for over $ 1 billion. In previous years, while online streaming was available on the official website of the tournament, however, it was geo-blocked in nations where the IPL had TV broadcast deals. That is changing this year. YouTube’s deal with IPL requires them to delay the stream by 5 minutes in countries where they have simultaneous TV broadcasting. Moreover, the online streams promise significant interactivity and customization. Viewers will be able to select their camera choice and freeze and fast-forward footage.

YouTube is reportedly going to stream the match at four quality levels. Google is also bringing its social network Orkut into play here through IPL-branded communities while engaging in both print and outdoor advertising promoting the event.

The timing also appears to be right. Comscore reports that by end of January 2010, over 10 million Indians had visited a sports site in the month, an increase of over 97% year-on-year. Viewer engagement also recorded strong figures, with both total minutes spent and total visits recording growth in excess of 100%. Google is expecting over 10 million unique visitors, and over 40 million cumulative viewers through the duration of the IPL. To put this in context, India had over 8 million broadband subscribers [PDF] (defined as speeds >256 Kbps) at the end of January 2010. Sponsors too are looking to cash in on the latent demand. One of the sponsors on YouTube, telecom operator Airtel is upgrading the access speeds of all its fixed broadband subscribers who wish to watch the matches to 2 Mbps, although fair usage/tiered limits still apply.

What does this deal mean for YouTube? Google is stepping on the pedal when it comes to generating revenue streams on YouTube. This tournament, when viewed in the context of YouTube’s tryst with legal content is interesting. YouTube has, to date, been primarily a forum for user-generated content, but it’s been trying for a while to increase the proportion of content that it can sell advertising on. User-generated content is great for pulling in the numbers, but it is deals such as this that will likely help YouTube make money. Already, large name-brand advertisers including Coca Cola, Samsung, HSBC, and HP are said to have signed up for advertising in India, with each of them said to be purchasing between 5-10 million ad impressions. YouTube will also be producing over 20 clips per match, which will be up for sponsorship, and it is likely to deploy several ad formats including homepage ads, pre-roll and mid-roll ads, and banner ads next to the video player. Advertisers get an opportunity to target a global audience. In the UK, which has a sizable cricket audience as well, local advertisers are being brought aboard.

YouTube is no stranger to live/high-traffic events. Its live streaming of U2’s concert last year attracted over 10 million viewers. The site had also hosted highlights of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, but only in geographies where digital rights could not be negotiated. Experience from such major events could ideally help YouTube refine its pitch for streaming other sporting events. While the current agreement offers content free, YouTube could indeed explore paid subscriptions of such events at a future date. Again, all of this depends on how successful the company is at hosting the event without technical hiccups.

For pay TV operators, who traditionally have paid significant broadcasting license fees to gain exclusive access to sporting events, YouTube’s entry is sure to shake up the scene. There are not many ways in which broadcast TV can compete with the interactivity offered by online viewing. In markets such as India, where cable and satellite subscription is still growing and broadband penetration is very low, migration of ad dollars might be limited. However, in a market such as the UK, YouTube will likely eat into the potential ad revenues that ITV4 (incidentally, a free-to-air channel) looks to generate. And if you take into account that set top boxes that allow YouTube content to be streamed to large-screen TVs are also making their presence felt, pay TV operators, such as Sky, that have traditionally relied on exclusive sports content definitely have reason to be concerned.

For Google, the imperative of making YouTube profitable is becoming more pressing with every passing day. By gaining rights for online streaming of major sporting events, YouTube gets a solid chance of trying to position itself as a comprehensive online video destination. One comprised of user-generated content, video rentals, on-demand premium clips, and live events. Viewed in that context, YouTube’s current deal with the IPL indeed appears a step in the right direction. If YouTube succeeds in creating a compelling usage experience for the viewer, one that betters broadcast TV, then rest assured, Google is going to be a regular fixture at event rights auctions around the world.

For those of you based in the US that want to watch the IPL matches, YouTube has clarified that you’ll be able to view them 15 minutes after they have ended.
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