It’s an unmitigated disaster. That’s the only reasonable way to describe what Optus Sport has served up to the football-loving public over the past week.
I was sitting in a Sydney pub to watch the Socceroos World Cup opener against heavily backed France, wondering if Australia could overcome the insurmountable task that lay ahead against arguably the finest squad in the tournament. Could we even put a goal to our name, or would it all end in tears?
What I didn't anticipate were two texts I received in the first 20 minutes and the wave of outrage that would follow in the coming days.
“Are you kidding me! Is Optus having a laugh?”, was one that stood out.
I could feel my football fanatical friend's anger and frustration through the phone.
The Aussie telco that put millions into securing the broadcasting rights to stream the World Cup, even snagging exclusive rights to many of the games, had suffered “major outages”.
Over the next few days, Optus CEO Allen Lew spoke to the media on two separate occasions and the telco has refunded every user who signed on for its $14.95 World Cup package.
Many Optus users were left unable to watch any matches, from any team, live.
Optus has taken a massive fall for this but rightly so. This is the world’s biggest sporting event and the worst time possible to show the shortcomings of live streamed sport.
Further, I am told by friend and former AdNews journalist Arvind Hickman, who is in Russia to watch the Socceroos, that he can get live streamed games for free on a Russian app without glitches – even when he is in the countryside and his data connection says its ‘E!’, which, if you've seen that before, generally means you're in 'Nowheresville'.
This streaming disaster has delivered a clear message to Australia – traditional broadcast TV is by far the best place to go when you need to distribute live event coverage to huge audiences.
When I got my chance to fire off a few questions to Lew on a press call, the first was the most important: “Allen, what damage has this done to streaming figures, are you below expectations?”
I was met with a resounding “no comment”. Fair enough, but we can probably assume they weren't great.
Let’s be clear, Optus isn’t in it for ratings, but it wants to attract new customers, and this is in no way a great advertisement for the telco.
Over on SBS, however, things couldn't be better.
Both the Socceroos' first two games delivered more than 1.6 million metro viewers, respectively.
Each hit above three million viewers, once national audience and streaming figures were taken into account.
Not only that, SBS accomplished an almost unimaginable feat by knocking off commercial free-to-air powerhouses Nine and Seven in audience share of main channels for the night.
Mile Jedinak's penalty goal against Denmark
There have also been a handful of times when SBS has broken double-digit overnight main channel share percentage points, in the ratings.
Take the Morocco vs Portugal match. Featuring the world’s top goal scorer, Cristiano Ronaldo, SBS scored a 10.8% share in the 10pm slot. For SBS and a game that has little relevance to an Australian audience, this is huge.
If Optus wouldn’t reveal how its share figures fared, then why are we still hearing all this noise about streaming being the new power behind live event television?
Take Telstra's online video platforms and workflow management systems company, Ooyala and what its principal industry analyst Jim O'Neill recently said in a white paper, 'world cup may be last hurrah for traditional broadcasters':
He said the 'Millennial Flu', meaning that most people already struggle to watch content for hours at a time. So while the television remains a popular choice, they should expect their customers to watch alternative content online simultaneously, “if they fail on any of those 'quality of experience' factors.”
Could this description be anymore flawed based on what we have seen so far by Telstra’s great rival?
The Ooyala ‘study’ also came to the conclusion that: “football’s World Cup has clung on as one of the few occasions where people will still turn on the television.
Let’s just ignore the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, AFL and NRL finals, Married at First Sight finale, Australian Ninja Warrior, My Kitchen Rules, MasterChef and a bunch of other “few occasions” over the past 12 months that have pulled well above one million in the ratings race.
And let’s not forget State of Origin.
In 2018 it has delivered the two highest rated programs of the year, with game one and two drawing in national audiences of 2.4m and 2.09m, respectively.
Even though Nine’s coverage of Origin game one was not slammed with complaints against its streaming capabilities and held a Video Player Measurement rating of 55,000, which is a record on the platform and a record for live streaming this year, these numbers certainly do not indicate we need to abandon the traditional TV ship.
The truth is, TV is still swinging big hammer live event audiences and reach, and only the most digital Kool Aid drinking marketers would argue otherwise.
I can't imagine the good folks, over at Stan are pumping out these sorts of numbers with the debut of one its Stan Original series.
Whenever sport is broadcast on social media, the audiences are insignificant compared to what SBS has delivered for this event.
Amazon’s recent English Premier League steaming rights win is interesting, but recent history shows us that it won’t deliver huge audiences.
That’s not to say that streaming doesn’t have an important role to play in the distribution of video content and that Optus shouldn't be commended for trying something new. It’s also important to remember that Australia has some of the worst internet connection speeds of any developed country and the government’s NBN rollout has been a bigger failure than anything Optus has done.
However, Ooyala's O'Neill makes a salient point about live event broadcasting:
“Uninterrupted delivery – without any buffering – will be critical to end-user experience and to keeping audiences engaged.”
Until that exists in this country, marketers looking to reach huge audiences would be best served keeping their remotes handy and remembering how SBS (and Mile Jedinak’s steely resolve) helped save this World Cup.