Amazon emerges unscathed from Premier League streaming debut

LONDON: Britain’s first big experiment with football streaming is getting a cautious thumbs-up from fans, in a vindication of Amazon.com Inc’s push into live sports.

The e-commerce giant’s Prime Video service avoided major technical failures to deliver its first eight Premier League matches to hundreds of thousands of fans on Tuesday and Wednesday.

It’s the first time an internet platform is taking full responsibility for showing the world’s richest football tournament to its home audience, pushing video-on-demand technology to its limits.

“I think the market reaction has, generally, been really positive,” said Minal Modha, a media analyst at Ampere Analysis. “They included features such as the ability to turn off commentary, which has gone down very well with fans.”

Amazon’s purchase of 20 games per year until 2021 is widely seen as a dry run for a more concerted challenge to traditional pay-TV companies that have dominated the broadcasting of top-level sport for decades.

There was praise for some of the functions offered using the video-on-demand technology, which included an option to analyse statistics about the players’ performance, and the accuracy of their passes and shots on goal.

It wasn’t all perfect — there were complaints during the first games of buffering and blackouts. Delays of as long as a minute between the real-time action and the stream meant some viewers had big moments spoiled by phone alerts or tweets preempting the goals.

Many of the complaints came from viewers who watched Liverpool’s clash with century-old local rivals Everton on Wednesday, where much of the viewing activity was concentrated in England’s northwest.

Sky, which shows most of the Premier League season via satellite, said the Merseyside derby normally attracts between 1.8 million and 2 million viewers on its service.

“Terrible. Keeps buffering and then stopping completely,” said one reviewer of the dramatic seven-goal thriller that Liverpool won. Almost a third of customers posting reviews on the Amazon Prime website gave the experience a one-star rating out of a possible five.

It suggests Amazon has more work to do before the Boxing Day national holiday on Dec 26 — one of the most popular football viewing days of the year — when it’s due to show nine games, six of them simultaneously. Sky and BT Group Plc take back coverage after Amazon’s last game on Dec. 27.

Faltering income

The technical capability to live-stream the most popular sports has emerged gradually as content delivery networks installed dedicated hardware in data centers and regional internet exchanges and developed software intelligent enough to anticipate bottlenecks and distribute data packets smoothly across the network.

Amazon customers might show some patience over the technical issues since they don’t have to pay extra for the games.

However, if the longer-term aim is to charge for Premier League access, viewers will expect the kind of flawless service they get from Sky or BT.

“Any instances of delays or buffering are an immediate turn-off,” said Lars Larsson, Chief Executive Officer of Varnish Software, which helps streaming sites such as Discovery Inc’s Eurosport to reduce network load.

He said roughly three-quarters of streamers don’t return to services that suffer multiple buffering problems.

Amazon’s involvement is being encouraged by the Premier League, which is responsible for distributing broadcast income to its 20 clubs.

Comcast Corp’s Sky and BT together paid around £4.5 billion for the most recent UK rights package, a decline from the previous three-year deal — ending 12 years of strong price increases.

Not all fans are welcoming Amazon, a company with a market value of US$873 billion, into England’s football scene.

A banner unfurled at Crystal Palace’s match against Bournemouth on Wednesday read “Kick-Offs Sold to the Highest Bidder, Amazon Profits, Fans Suffer.”

Amazon is bundling exclusive sport content into its Prime shopping memberships to lure new customers and make existing ones more reluctant to opt out of the service, which offers faster online deliveries.

Ampere estimate that out of Amazon’s 9 million or so Prime Video subscribers, around 900,000 watch Premier League football.

A representative for Amazon declined to comment on how many new subscribers have been attracted to Prime since it began marketing its Premier League coverage.