YouTube TV cannot afford to have another NFL Sunday Ticket hiccup

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Stephen Hellmuth, a dedicated fan of Washington’s NFL franchise, experienced a frustrating viewing session while watching their game against the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday. Hellmuth, residing in New Jersey, encountered unexpected buffering, glitching, and stalling during the game.

He was not alone. If you were active on social media last weekend, you likely witnessed numerous dissatisfied NFL Sunday Ticket viewers, now utilizing YouTube, voicing their complaints about the feeds during the NFL’s 1 p.m. ET window.

Fortunately, Hellmuth possesses technological expertise. Inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2023 after a 45-year career in sports production, live events, systems design, and technology, Hellmuth expressed surprise at the experience. He stated, “Google had provided such a fantastic experience for seven consecutive weeks.”

“As I sat there with my wife, I realized something was off. This had not happened with Sunday Ticket before,” Hellmuth recounted. “The feed of the Commanders game was buffering and stalling. I checked other channels to ensure it wasn’t my internet connection. Eventually, I adjusted my feed, lagging behind the real-time action by 10 to 20 seconds, and the streaming became smooth. My local cache had been refreshed, delivering a seamless streaming experience.”

This marks the first season Sunday Ticket broadcasts on YouTube TV, following nearly three decades on DirecTV. The seven-year deal involves Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google and YouTube, paying the NFL approximately $2 billion annually for exclusive access to Sunday afternoon games featuring out-of-market teams. When announced last December, the deal solidified Alphabet’s status as a major player in live sports rights and expanded the NFL’s partnership with yet another tech giant.

A premium product like Sunday Ticket inherently demands flawless performance, a selling point traditionally associated with linear television (barring local outages).

Bob Thompson, retired president of Fox Sports Networks and current consultant, remarked, “YouTube’s delivery of Sunday Ticket had been nearly flawless for seven consecutive weeks. Sign-up was easy, picture quality was excellent, and there were no buffering issues. The multi-view options were well-executed and well-received. That’s why last Sunday was such a disappointment. When viewers pay a premium price, they expect flawless streaming, not the dreaded buffering icon. In response, they expressed their frustrations on social media. YouTube may be given a pass this time, but the NFL and subscribers, in particular, will not be forgiving if such issues persist.”

The NFL declined to comment on Sunday Ticket’s problems, and Google did not respond to inquiries. However, league officials have engaged with YouTube executives following the incident, with an expectation of a smooth user experience this Sunday.

A YouTube executive assured that the technical difficulties experienced by Sunday Ticket customers will not recur. “Ensuring we deliver the exceptional experience we promised our viewers is our top priority,” affirmed Lori Conkling, global head of media and sports partnerships, during the SBJ Media Innovators conference in New York.

Prior to YouTube’s recent issues, NFL chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp highlighted the superiority of broadcast and linear television for delivering high-quality content to millions of viewers.

“For years, television has excelled in aggregation, providing the best technology to reach large audiences with excellent quality,” Rolapp informed Albert Breer of SI NFL. “The question has always been whether the internet, despite being a singular channel, can accommodate a similar number of users concurrently at high quality. The answer is yes. Platforms like Amazon and YouTube have demonstrated exceptional picture and user experiences. We are delighted with the results. For any entity distributing NFL games, whether it’s through broadcast or another medium, ensuring high-quality delivery is a top priority.”

Last week, Sportico published an engaging piece featuring Morgan Stanley’s equity research unit projecting that YouTube TV could suffer losses totaling $8.86 billion on Sunday Ticket between now and 2029, with average annual declines amounting to $1.27 billion. While these are significant projections, Alphabet, boasting a market cap of $1.58 trillion, can absorb the losses. The strategy appears to revolve around leveraging the NFL as a means of acquiring new customers.

“If YouTube wants to be savvy, they should consider offering pro-rata refunds or credits towards next season to regain subscribers’ trust and appease the NFL,” recommended Thompson.

While such actions have not occurred, the company recently announced a 50% discount on certain plans for the final 10 weeks of the season. The estimated number of Sunday Ticket subscribers currently stands at approximately 1.5 million. Although a one-time hiccup, another incident could render last week’s customer complaints trivial.

As streaming increasingly dominates our sports viewing experiences, perfection becomes an expectation. While achieving perfection may be unrealistic, it remains the present reality.

The most recent edition of my “Sports Media” podcast features a conversation with Chad Finn, sports media writer for The Boston Globe, and Jon Lewis, editor and founder of Sports Media Watch. We discuss YouTube’s Sunday Ticket buffering issues from last week, among other NFL topics.

It is rare for an unacquainted crew to come together and cover a game as significant as the NFL Network’s Miami Dolphins versus Kansas City Chiefs showdown in Frankfurt, Germany, this Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET. Rich Eisen will provide commentary alongside Jason McCourty and Dan Orlovsky, while Stacey Dales and Sara Walsh serve as sideline reporters.


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(Photo: Simon Bruty / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)


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