College Sports Summit: To Go OTT or TV Everywhere, That Is the Question

With the quantity of live games and original content produced by universities and college conferences increasing every year, the question of how best to distribute this video to various digital platforms has jumped to the top of the priority list. Depending on the media-rights situation, an institution must decide whether to go with a TV Everywhere authentication model, a direct-to-consumer OTT model, or a hybrid that integrates both.

“Whether it is in an app, mobile-friendly site, on a connected device, or something else, every company that creates content today needs to have some sort of strategy to deliver content on these devices,” said Big Ten Network VP of Programming and Digital Media Michael Calderon during a panel at last week’s SVG College Sports Summit in Atlanta. “It is 2015, and the metrics for viewership of video on smartphones, tablets, and [connected devices] is growing exponentially by the month. So you need to be in that space. There is just no way around it.”

BTN: Fishing in Both Ponds
In the case of Big Ten Network, Calderon and company were early entrants in the TV Everywhere game, launching BTN2GO prior to the 2011 college football season just months after trendsetter WatchESPN debuted. The service allows live streaming (via mobile, tablet, and Web browser) of BTN and other programming to authenticated users with a subscription to a participating MVPD.

“We were fortunate in that our rights deal with the conference called for us to have all those rights,” said Calderon. “Other sports networks don’t necessarily have that. ESPN spent a decade trying to get all the rights they needed to launch WatchESPN. The regional level is even more complex with RSNs, which are still struggling to secure all the rights they need to stream the content.”

In addition, BTN has since launched BTN Plus, a direct-to-consumer OTT offering that allows subscribers (for a monthly or annual fee) to watch non-televised games and events available on BTN2Go without a subscription to a participating MVPD.

“It all goes back to the rights,” added Calderon. “Does your school have the rights to create apps and mobile and OTT experiences? If not, how do you work with the entity that does have those rights — your conference or network or media-rights holder — in order to make solutions that work for what your goals are and what the rightsholder’s goals are as well?”

Ivy League Digital Network: Living Up to Expectations
Prior to the 2013-14 season, the Ivy League launched Ivy League Digital Network, a NeuLion-powered OTT offering that features live and on-demand video and audio content involving all eight conference schools and league championship events. The conference has continued to cultivate the digital network in the years since but understands that with an OTT offering comes sizable fan expectations.

“With reach and audience comes the expectation that you can put forth quality productions on a consistent basis,” said Matt Panto, ‎assistant executive director, digital media and communications, The Ivy League. “For us, it has been figuring it out over the past two years, and we were lucky to partner with someone [NeuLion] that understands that.

“Once you go over the top,” he continued, “there is that expectation that you have it all figured out and you have your workflows figured out and you can continue to share content on a daily basis even when live events aren’t happening. It changes the consumer’s expectation when you launch into a platform like that. Our goal — and I think the goal for other conferences our size — is to get to a point where we feel confident enough in the quality of our programming to take an initiative like [OTT] to the next level.”

Choose Your Platforms Wisely
With an ever increasing number of streaming platforms and devices, academic institutions can’t be expect to cater to every single one. As a result, universities and conferences must strategically choose the platforms that cater most to their fan base and provide the greatest opportunity to expand their brand.

“It usually starts with the president of the university saying I want this on my device at home, and then everything follows. But, from a technology perspective, deploying to all these different devices is extremely complex,” said Ryan Jesperson, ‎senior manager, technical product marketing, Wowza Media Systems. “There are different SDKs for every platform: Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV, Xbox, PlayStation. You have to essentially have different development teams for each one.”

The complexity is especially challenging when it comes to the growing number of connected-TV devices — Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast — and game consoles — PlayStation 4, Xbox One. Jesperson noted that an entire dedicated development team is often required for each platform, making for a costly development process.

“That is cost-prohibitive for any university and even for many conferences,” he said. “So that often has to be outsourced to a third party. The other thing is, as you are developing this technology, it changes all the time. So being able to pick what devices you want to be available on is really the key.”

As a result, schools and conferences often adopt a gradual strategy. For example, after focusing on iOS and Android mobile platforms (along with streaming partner NeuLion) rather than connected-TV devices in recent years, Big Ten Network is prepping its BTN2Go service for Roku and Google Chromecast in time for the 2015 football season.

“As a content company, we can’t afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop for every platform,” said Calderon. “You can’t spent thousands for [a platform] just to have a few hundred people watch.”