As Amazon kicks off its live coverage of the Premier League, Alana Foster speaks with experts on meeting fan demand and managing the technical challenges.
Amazon’s foray into the world of Premier League football began last night with coverage of two games: Manchester City’s 4-1 away win at Burnley and Crystal Palace’s 1-0 win at home to Bournemouth.
While some fans took to Twitter to complain about buffering, initial feedback appears to be largely positive, with many praising the BT Sport and Sunset + Vine-produced coverage. However, a bigger challenge will come this evening with the simultaneous broadcast of six games, including the Merseyside Derby between Liverpool and Everton.
The addition of Amazon is arguably the most significant change to the broadcast of the 2019 Premier League season, which started on 9 August and sees Amazon joining the established broadcasters Sky and BT Sport in covering the matches.
The Premier League splits its games into several chunks, shared by Sky Sports and BT, but it offered two small packages of 20 games to see if any online giants such as Amazon, Netflix, Facebook and Apple were interested.
A bidding war did not materialise, but Amazon successfully snagged 20 games a season for a three-year contract for an undisclosed price including the exclusive rights for the Boxing Day round of games on 26 and 27 December.
“Amazon will need to accurately forecast the viewership for these games to be able to support dramatic spikes in traffic at the times of the matches” – David Harraghy, Ampere Analysis
BT Sport paid £90 million for a similar package of 20 games a year; together the deals mark the first time a full round of matches will be shown live in the UK.
Amazon set its sights on this package as a low-risk way to explore the potential of streaming Premier League games before deciding whether to commit to a bigger challenge next time from the 2022-23 matches.
It also doesn’t hurt the digital giant is using the attention from football fans to grow its subscription to its website over the Christmas period, with its service also including free delivery on many items.
To increase its catchment, Rethink TV editor Philip Hunter explains: “Amazon has now persuaded the EPL to break the first mid-week package as opposed to the second Christmas package, into three, two matches Tuesday, six Wed and two Thursday.”
He adds: “It is certainly true that Amazon has stepped up its investment in the hope these matches pass off without any major glitches this time, which indeed might compromise future bids.”
The Amazon coverage includes 43 presenters, commentators and pundits - including high-profile ex-players Alan Shearer, Jermaine Jenas, Michael Owen and Thierry Henry - and well-known broadcasters such as Gabby Logan, Conor McNamara and Guy Mowbray.
Prime Video Sport Europe managing director Alex Green said Amazon “wanted to create a broad and diverse talent line-up with a mixture of both familiar faces and new ones.
“The sheer breadth and depth of our line-up shows how much we are investing in this.”
Amazon has contracted BT Sport and Sunset + Vine to produce its coverage of the Premier League, which will utilise over 350 cameras in Premier League stadiums, work with over 2,000 staff including camera operators, editors, sound engineers, directors, mixers and producers, as well as employ over 70 on-screen talent to analyse, commentate and host the programming, with over 35 hours of football broadcast on Prime Video across December.
“The task of being the exclusive broadcaster for the domestic and global feed should not be underestimated, Amazon is fully aware of the monumental challenges that lie ahead” – Paolo Pescatore, PP Foresight
On Boxing Day, Amazon will face the considerable challenge of broadcasting nine matches in one day. Amazon will have a studio in Stratford (BT Sport’s production home), London, glass-box studios in the stadiums, commentary and punditry teams pitch side and more than 70 faces and voices providing match presentation.
On the logistics of delivery, Green said: “We will have a production presence at every stadium including not just commentators but also a presenter and pundits, who will be pitch-side or in a studio.”
Tackling the technicalities
Amazon’s coverage of the Premier League marks an interesting moment in the UK sports rights industry.
OTT players have successfully managed to secure other sports rights in the UK, including Eleven Sports La Liga coverage, but it is the first time a digital giant will air exclusive domestic rights to the Premier League.
Ampere Analysis analyst Daniel Harraghy told IBC365: “A surge in concurrent demand has plagued online sports services in the past - most recently Mitele in Spain - while outside of the sports world, Disney+ had site issues on its launch day.
“As such, Amazon will need to accurately forecast the viewership for these games to be able to support dramatic spikes in traffic at the times of the matches, which will prevent issues with delivering the content such as buffering - particularly for more data-intensive streams such as 4K HDR.”
While Amazon’s ATP Tennis rights deal will have helped prepare it for delivery of live sports to UK audiences, the Premier League has a much larger fan base.
Harraghy adds: “Our data suggests that the Premier League fan base among Amazon Prime Video users in the UK is five times greater than the number of ATP Tennis supporters, showing the scale of the challenge for Amazon.”
Amazon’s NFL Thursday Night Football package in the US will also have prepared the streaming service for this coverage, with 25% of US Amazon Prime Video users being fans of the sport, almost equivalent to the proportion of current Prime Video users in the UK who are Premier League fans which is 26%.
“The nature of sports content means customers need to watch the event live and with as little latency as possible, and it remains to be seen whether networks will be able to cope with the congestion of waves of football fans tuning in at the same time,” Harraghy explains: “If there is buffering or a lag in the coverage, this could result in dissatisfaction among fans, which may have a wider impact on Amazon’s e-commerce business.”
On Boxing Day, for the first time in the UK, a whole round of games will be televised live. Amazon’s greatest challenge will be managing the bandwidth at peak times, testing its infrastructure whilst delivering top-level football games.
The ability for customers to switch between games also creates an unprecedented level of personalisation of the viewing experience.
Amazon also has rights to matches for the two following seasons, which gives the service time to make any necessary changes to improve their Premier League coverage.
Today, Amazon will simultaneously broadcast six games including the two high profile matches with former Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho returning to Old Trafford as manager of Tottenham Hotspur, as well as Liverpool at home to local rivals Everton.
Futuresource principal analyst David Sidebottom says: “The combined audience could be significant and having these two games at the same time may also displease many neutral fans who would be interested in watching both.”
“It is certainly the start of a potential new paradigm and a way for Amazon to raise its profile, increase consumer engagement and grow Prime subscriptions and also test the water for any future bids and distribution of live sport via its platform.”
Amazon’s delivery is the first time a global company has broadcast such a high-profile event in the UK.
Sidebottom adds: “The likes of Amazon, Netflix, Facebook will be ultimately looking at global licensing which will be seriously challenging for the Premier League.”
If Amazon’s broadcast is successful and it continues its charge into the football broadcasting world beyond this season, it is likely many viewers will claim the fragmentation of rights will not benefit the viewing experience despite the distributors investing in advancing technology and engagement methods.
Sidebottom notes: “Perhaps one of the most significant benefits for Amazon will be the ability to offer highly targeted ad-insertion. With addressable advertising growing in prominence, this round of games is another crucial landmark for this technology.”
Amazon’s deep pockets do not mitigate the technical challenges and the acquisition of rights requires a huge investment.
“This is still early days for Amazon Prime Video,” explains PP Foresight analyst Paolo Pescatore: “The task of being the exclusive broadcaster for the domestic and global feed should not be underestimated, Amazon is fully aware of the monumental challenges that lie ahead.”
The package rights are ideal for Amazon as its primary business is driving value to its Prime subscribers.
Prime Video Europe vice president Jay Marine said: “Everything we do at Amazon starts with our customers. “Prime is a very unique programme and ultimately our mission is to make Prime the best membership programme in the world for our customers and with Prime Video, a key part of that offering, we’re investing billions worldwide to create shows that Prime members can watch exclusively for free as part of their membership.”
Live sport is an attractive new area for Amazon and is certainly something that its customers are passionate about.
Amazon’s success with the live production of NFL Thursday Night Football, ATP, and US Open position it as a viable player in the industry.
Pescatore adds: “Amazon’s recent deals with BT Sport (it’s Premier League production partner) shows a commitment to work more closely with the UK sports broadcasting market. Premier League sports fans are now accustomed to top-quality professional produced football; it is about creating a story around the match.
“Ultimately, this is a strong endorsement for BT Sport’s capabilities and whilst Sky Sports is still the home of Premier League, BT Sport has firmly established as a key sports service among fans and is a fierce rival to Sky.
“While it is still early days for Amazon it is testing the waters and steadily increasing its focus on sports in its quest to drive further value for its Prime subscribers.”
BT Sport’s Ultimate aim
Football is the game of choice for audiences in the UK and the Premier League is the pinnacle, BT Sport is delivering all of its games this season in 4K, HDR and Dolby Atmos.
BT Sport chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh tells IBC365: “If you want people to pay money you have to show the sport people want to watch.”
Year on year, BT Sport has enhanced its coverage for fans having achieved the first live broadcast of the Premier League in 4K and Dolby Atmos and this year it will be delivering all content in HDR and UHD with the relaunch of BT Sport Ultimate exclusively via BT TV.
Hindhaugh explains: “BT Sport Ultimate is the best viewing experience delivered over IP.
“It is a clever platform with seamless connectivity and a subscription service to serve the ultimate viewing experience. It is a real dynamic way of building a relationship with audiences.”
This year will see a first, as no UK broadcaster has ever delivered 10 games before.
“The time of year is a challenge,” Hindhaugh adds: “We also deliver the European rugby, 10 games over a weekend on a regular basis and because of that, we have the right relationship with the right partners and teams to support the concurrency of the games.”
BT Sport is working to build a legacy to make sure its productions are future-proofed in terms of the format and the content being captured.
“We have worked hard to make sure it is affordable, and it is,” Hindhaugh explains: “Audiences, technology and sport go hand in hand and there is that expectation from audiences that we deliver the ultimate viewing experience.”
If content is king, distribution is queen, and scale is, therefore, the hardest problem to solve in the OTT space when it comes to live streaming.
Enders Analysis research analyst Julian Aquilina explains that Amazon is delivering individual streams to each connected device, as opposed to transmitting a single broadcast signal which everyone receives in the same way.
“Of all TV genres, sport is the one where people are least tolerant to connection issues. A high-quality feed greatly enhances the viewing experience – particularly for fast-moving games.”
Broadcast TV delivers reliably, while internet streaming services can suffer from buffering and will ultimately frustrate fans.
Aquilina says: “Unless the economics of their businesses change in a significant way, Amazon and Facebook are not in a position to challenge for premium sports rights.
“You still need the reach of broadcast TV platforms to make live sports work because live sport is incredibly expensive.”
The total annual cost of the domestic Premier League rights is £1.5 billion, which is nearly as much as the BBC’s entire TV content budget (£1.7 billion) and more than any of the FAANG players’ UK video revenues.
Sidebottom adds: “Amazon is willing to challenge incumbents such as Sky and BT for the expensive primary packages but differentiation will remain key for all services, as such investment will likely continue.
“How much revenue the initiatives contribute will also be looked at in the context of the “halo” effect on a service in the short term, but longer-term it is likely a more direct return on investment will be required.”
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