As thousands of football fans fill stadiums across America to see the first Sunday of NFL action, millions more will watch at home and at bars — as much as one minute later.
For nearly three decades, football’s most dedicated fans subscribed to the “Sunday Ticket” satellite package to tune into games not shown on traditional TV via national broadcast or local affiliates.
But since the NFL sold rights to the package to YouTube for $2 billion annually at the end of last year, those fanatics will now have to stream out-of-market games, which can come with multi-second delays.
That’s because images and sounds carried digitally routinely take more time to reach computer screens compared to those delivered nearly instantly by cable or satellite.
Jed Corenthal, chief marketing officer of Chicago-based steaming technology firm Phenix, predicts that some streaming customers could experience up to a minute of delay.
“I expect people will have some issues,” he said. “There’s going to be some unhappy people because of the latency. I’m confident in that statement, unfortunately.”
For example, fans watching the Super Bowl earlier this year on one of six leading digital providers saw the big plays between 23 seconds and 76 seconds after spectators in the stands did, according to an annual study done by Phenix of the lag between real-time action of the NFL title game versus streaming.
In a statement, Google, the parent company of YouTube, said it’s confident in its infrastructure for Sunday and urged their viewers to tune into a feature, “Stats for Nerds,” that tracks raw data on latency and bandwidth.
“Overall, YouTube TV is built on the infrastructure that powers YouTube and reliably serves billions of playback every day,” the company said. “The YouTube TV team is working on building a high-quality Sunday Ticket experience.”
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A spokesperson, however, declined to discuss potential latency issues for “Sunday Ticket.”
Experts told NBC News that the delay “Sunday Ticket” subscribers will face on Sunday can’t be helped and is just the reality of current technology, engineers said.
Images and sounds are broken into chunks and sent to a content delivery network (CDN) which reassembles these packages for the video delivered to streaming viewers. These extra steps inevitably lead to delays compared to cable or satellite.
“Think of cable as delivering all pieces in one truck whereas streaming must send different pieces through different delivery trucks,” said Biao Chen, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Syracuse University.
Chip Gubera, who teaches media technology and design at the University of Missouri’s College of Engineering, compared streaming to a trick play in football where the ball is passed around sideways or backward before moving forward.
“It’s more players having to touch the ball,” Gubera said.
Latency issues would be of no concern if fans, watching traditional TV or streaming, were all taking in the action and reacting with nearly the same delay.
But in the modern era of two screens, almost all live human activity involves someone tweeting or texting about an event in real time.
And for those football fans watching the Sunday action on streaming services — but also glued to the constant discussion on social media — delays of even a few seconds can be significant.
“I think the average fan will understand this when I’m tweeting you and I’m telling you about a touchdown you haven’t yet seen,” Corenthal said. “More and more people are complaining and grasping what it means to have all of these delays.”
Paul Verna, media analyst at Insider Intelligence, recalled cutting the cord in 2018 and watching that year’s New Year’s Eve ball drop on his streaming device. He knew there’d be a delay, but seeing 2019 arrive late still took him by surprise.
“I’m watching ball drop on (streaming) TV and I’m looking at my watch and it’s already midnight, well past midnight, and the ball hasn’t dropped yet, ” Verna said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, people have rung in the new year for 45 seconds now.’ “
He expects a measure of NFL fans on Sunday to feel like he did in the first moments of Jan. 1, 2019.
“I think some people will be taken aback,” Verna said. “Some people will experience this for the very first time and other people will be like me, who already knew this would happen, but will experience it in a way that’s new to them and they’re going to be weirded out by it.”
Mizzou’s Gubera, however, said he’s confident YouTube will deliver a not-so-tardy product on Sunday.
“They have it down. They have the infrastructure,” he said. “With what they currently have, going full throttle, I think they’ll do fine.”
The professor declined to guess how far behind the action YouTube will be on Sunday — but it better not be much more than 10 seconds slower than cable.
“How long does it take to type out a Tweet and send it?” he rhetorically asked. “Five seconds, 10 seconds? That’s when it becomes a problem, when I get the information from the second screen before I can watch it with my own eyes, that’s when it comes an issue.”