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Yahoo's Landmark Stream of Bills-Jaguars Game Will Change How We Watch Sports Forever

A new age of sports TV is dawning; let us all bask in its glory.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Yahoo just fired a shot across the bow of every major cable company in America, and boy was it a doozy. Yesterday’s online stream of the Bills-Jaguars game in London attracted an impressive 15.2 million unique viewers, per Yahoo Sports, which is more than every single Monday Night Football broadcast this season, including last week’s show (13.9 million) that included a world premiere of the new Star Wars trailer. Those numbers are also bested the average viewership numbers during all seven games of the 2014 World Series (13.9 million) and more than doubled ESPN’s coverage of the 2015 NFL Draft (7 million).

Those viewers streamed over 460 million total minutes of the game with over 33 percent of the streams being used by international users across 185 worldwide. It was the first time that international viewers were able to access a NFL game without cable or satellite.

Despite the immense size of the audience, Yahoo provided a great technical experience delivering the game. The stream reached HD levels, the average rebuffering ratio was nearly 1 percent and the game was broadcast at 60 frames per second. Average Internet video is usually distributed at 30 frames per second. Viewers were able to watch the game, a thrilling 34-31 Jaguars victory, in a variety of ways including smartphones, tablets, laptops and smart television sets.

"It’s been a great opportunity to partner with the NFL and deliver a truly exceptional global live streaming experience for our users," said Adam Cahan, Yahoo’s SVP of Product and Engineering, in a statement. "We’re seeing a dramatic shift in the industry as audiences’ primary video watching moves away from TV. We were thrilled to join the NFL in setting a new standard for sports programming for our users and advertisers."

CNN has a different interpretation of the numbers, however, saying that in reality average viewership of the stream was just a fraction of a normal TV audience.

There were 33.6 million total streams (meaning many people either reloaded it at some point or left and came back later).

"Over 460 million total minutes of video were consumed" during the 195 minute game, the partners said, which implies an average viewership per minute of 2.36 million. An NFL spokesman confirmed the figure.

Afternoon and evening NFL games on TV average 10 to 20 million viewers per minute.

A Sunday morning Jets-Dolphins match-up earlier in the season, televised by CBS, averaged 9.9 million viewers. Like the Bills-Jaguars game, it was played in London at 9:30 a.m. ET.

What CNN does not mention, however, is how TV ratings are actually calculated. In a first quarter blowout game – like the one between the Jags and Bills yesterday – typically television audiences drop off dramatically by the midpoint of the contest simply because it is no longer competitive. Not only that, but a viewer does not have to watch more than 15 minutes or so of the broadcast to be counted in the ratings metrics in the first place. The numbers from the Nielsen sample are generally reported as either an average or as a median, with the median being favored as the most "accurate" because it is less prone to being influenced by the wild swings in viewership that normally accompany live sports. That means that if a game starts with a viewership of 20 million in the first 15-30 minutes of the broadcast but drops to 5 million by the end of the second quarter due to a blowout, the median rating that is reported is about 12.5 million viewers because it falls right in the middle of those two numbers. That huge first quarter rating when the game was still competitive would then artificially prop up the rest of the game’s ratings, which in turn are then used to sell ad space in future broadcasts.

When it comes to online streams, those "median" numbers no longer exist. Viewership is not estimated by a third party company out of a tiny 5,000 person sample size that is projected across 300 million Americans. What you see is what you get, and every single viewer can be accounted for individually. There is no guessing, and there is no artificial propping up of ratings during an early blowout like the Jaguars game yesterday. The early first and late fourth quarter segments of action were undoubtedly the most watched portions of the game simply because they were the most competitive of the morning, yet Yahoo has more accurate viewership numbers to show for it than any Nielsen report has ever provided. When you factor in the other million or so Jaguars and Bills fans that watched the game on traditional TV in their local markets, the "real" numbers become much more impressive.

Yahoo’s stream was a complete success despite featuring two traditionally terrible small market teams in a time slot that practically guaranteed little to no viewership from West Coast audiences. New York and Miami may have attracted a median number of 9.9 million viewers during their London game a few weeks ago, but those also happen to be two of the biggest media markets on the East Coast, and both teams were (and are) in the hunt for a wild card spot. The contexts and storylines leading up to both games could not possibly have been more different, and thus their realistic expectations for ratings were incomparable.

The fact of the matter is that Yahoo’s impressive numbers could lead to an astonishingly lucrative new source of income for the NFL. A 30-second advertisement slot on Thursday Night Football goes for around $550,000 this season, with Monday Night Football’s 30-second spots selling for roughly $430,000 a pop. Yahoo, at least based on their raw numbers from the least desirable matchup of the entire week, could likely ask for north of $500,000 per advertisement. Hell, some people might even consider that number a massive discount considering how accessible a free live stream is compared to traditional TV. With an average of 100-120 ads per broadcast, Yahoo would be looking at around $50-60 million dollars in revenue from ads alone in just one game. When you add in the extra revenue that the tech giant would generate from passive clickable ad impressions off to the side of the screen, traffic to their various sports pages, fantasy football league registrations, and perhaps even integration into their new daily fantasy sports service, each individual matchup could be worth far more than any other traditional sports broadcast on television right now. When all is said and done, streaming every non-prime time NFL game could open up billions upon billions of dollars of untapped profits for everyone involved.

Despite the proverbial cat being out of the bag, however, cable companies and media conglomerates will not go quietly into the night. The cable industry is reliant on live sports now more than ever. Were it not for the near limitless cash that the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and FIFA generate from their ravenous fan bases, companies like Comcast and DirecTV would have to seriously reconsider their oft-criticized business models. As an industry, they simply cannot afford to lose their stranglehold on sports. Cord cutters have eaten into the entire sector’s profits at an alarming rate over the past several years, and with the proliferation of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and PLEX, there is no end in sight. Networks and telecoms have to adapt or die, and now Yahoo has possibly given them all their best chance at survival.

The NFL finally knows what kind of money is being left on the table, but the only way to collect it is through some sort of contractual compromise. Whether that middle ground is Yahoo loaning their superior infrastructure to DirecTV as their official streaming partner, or perhaps partnering with the networks like CBS and FOX directly to help reclaim the eyeballs of cord cutters, something has to be worked out. The flood gates have been officially opened, and there is simply too much money not being made right now for nothing to change.

As a person who works in the sports television industry covering both the NFL and the NBA for two different cable networks, my personal career prospects just became a whole lot more complicated. As a fan of sports in general, however, yesterday was the beginning of a brand new beautiful world. I'll chalk that one up as a win.

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