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Behind the Scenes of the Internet’s First Football Game

At 5:05 am Sunday, long before the rest of Sunnyvale, California will wake up, Yahoo’s control room is packed. Seventeen people, many of them standing, face a wall of screens. On the two largest, the hosts of Fantasy Football Live, Yahoo’s decade-old web show about fantasy football, are discussing their best bets for the week to come.

Producer Evan Doherty has a chair but is too restless to use it. Tall and spiky-haired, he talks constantly into his black headset mic, ordering shots and telling the hosts to wrap it up and move on to the next segment. He tugs at his shirt, a black polo embroidered with a Yahoo Sports logo. He rubs his hands together, purses his lips, and jiggles his legs like a restless kid waiting for school to end.

The day is coming when people will stop subscribing to cable altogether. Yahoo has to be there.

Doherty has produced and hosted shows more complicated than this, but the stakes are higher today. According to the big red numbers counting down on the clock, the team has 85 minutes until Yahoo’s coverage turns to the Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars game being broadcast live from Wembley Stadium in London. It’s Yahoo’s first NFL game, and the first time an NFL game has appeared exclusively online for free to anyone with an Internet connection. It’s a glimpse into the future of sports, and television.

It’s also a chance for Yahoo to show everyone what it can do with technology and content.Less than a week earlier, the company took a $42 million writedown on its original content, all but admitting defeat. “We couldn’t see a way to make money over time,” Yahoo CFO Ken Goldman told investors. So itpivoted: rather than chase Hulu and Netflix and the like, Yahoo is trying to go where millions of people already congregate: sports.

Yahoo’s spent weekspromoting, testing, and rehearsing for this game. It’s streamed other NFL games to no one, worked with network partners around the world, and tested every gadget it can think of. they can think of. It all works.

All that’s left to do ispraythe game doesn’t suck.

The Future of Football Is Apps

The NFL and Yahoo announced the the partnership in June, and even then referred to it as “an experiment.” The NFL could afford to take chances: Everyone expected the game to be a snoozer between two lame teams, and broadcast so early that it wouldn’t bother anyone. But it was a chance for Yahoo to prove it can do live video, an opportunity to establish itself as the go-to place for the transition from cable TV to Internet TV.

“I think about it from the perspective of a hundred-and-fifty-plus billion dollar industry that is set to be disrupted,” says Adam Cahan, Yahoo’s senior vice president of mobile and emerging products. The day is coming, he says, when people will stop subscribing to cable. Yahoo has to be there.

Sports are a uniquely powerful agent for that change. “This is unique programming,” Cahan says. “It’s the kind of things that people will shift their behaviors with.” He says Netflix and its ilk offer a service that is increasingly commoditized. Live sports, on the other hand, move the industry. It made HDTV important, brought satellite TV to the fore, and will play a huge role in determining what happens next. Yahoo’s thinking is that people will go where the games are, and then all it has to do is keep them around when it ends. (Call it The ESPN Plan.)

Neither side would discuss what Yahoo paid for the rights to broadcast the game, though $20 million was widely reported. Yahoo doesn’t seem to care about recoupingthat money—and almost certainly didn’t. This is a chance to show the NFL—and advertisers—what it can offer over time. Yahoo says it worked with 30 domestic and international partners and locked up some big-name sponsors. It’s appealing to advertisers, because the enterprise offers the data of online ads and the reach of television. “We’re going to be able to give information about users,” Cahan says, “that also says what screens did they access it from, what geographies were they in, what type of network were they accessing on.”

We have a significant portion of the world’s Internet bandwidth reserved for this game.Yahoo VP Ron Jacoby

The Yahoo Video team has featured concerts by Taylor Swift, streamed the Emmys, and was at the Electric Daisy Carnival. It has apps for every platform you can think of, and supports most dongles, boxes, and sticks. The technical infrastructure is robust. But an NFL game is another thing entirely.

The football audience is much bigger, for one thing, and has little tolerance for low resolution or lag. “There will be a lot of motion, a lot of action, the ball moving on the screen,” says P.P.S. Narayan (everyone calls him PPSN), Yahoo Video’s VP of engineering. “We want to provide the best experience for our users, so we decided we needed to provide the highest-quality HD video.” The team decided early on to try streaming 720p video, at 60 frames per second, with 6Mbps bitrate1. “We have a significant portion of the world’s Internet bandwidth reserved for this game,” says Ron Jacoby, Yahoo’s vice president and chief architect for connected TV. In all, Yahoo streamed 8.5 petabytes to users.

Few people’s connections can support such ridiculous throughput, so Yahoo made its stream more adaptive. The software knows the quality of your network and the size of your screen, and tries to deliver the best picture possible. As long as it’s not buffering, that is. “Nobody should see the spinner,”Narayan says. After all, TV doesn’t buffer.

Game On

Others handled most of the game production—it was a CBS broadcasting crew, and an NFL Network halftime show. Yahoo’s job was mostly to make sure things stayed live. Representatives from nearly every team at the company sat in a room, their noses in laptops, constantly providing status updates. In the control room, everyone watcheda panel of twelve screens showing the status of the fiber feed and satellite backups.

The real show is down the hall, in another Yahoo studios. Two card tables are set up in a V, facing a giant unbranded television. Six men sit at six mics, trying something new: an alternative, fan- and fantasy-driven audio stream for the game.

The set of the fantasy broadcast, Yahoo’s alternative audio for Sunday’s game. Yahoo

Shaun King, a former NFL quarterback and the day’s designated Jaguars fan, is on a roll. It’s the middle of the second quarter, the Bills just turned the ball over again, and the Jags are about to go up 27-3. King, having shed his pre-game show outfit of shirt, tie, suit jacket, and camo cargo shorts in favor of a polo shirt and camo cargo shorts, leans back in his flimsy chair, giggling. “This is awesome” he shouts at Kirk Morrison, aformer linebacker and the day’s Bills fan. He’s spent the last 15 minutes telling everyone how horrible Bills quarterback EJ Manuel is. Morrison shakes his head. When the game breaks for a commercial, King sips his tea, pumps his fists, and shouts “Yes! Yes! We killing them!” Morrison sighs, again.

Yahoo didn’t want to try too many new things and risk pissing off fans or the NFL. Most people saw and heard the normal broadcast, hosted by CBS stalwarts Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon. But the “fantasy broadcast” is the start of something big, says Yahoo Sports executive producer Ryan Dornbusch. He argues that the buttoned-up, straightforward CBS show “is not authentic to what a viewer is saying on their couch as they’re slapping their heads, frustrated.” Listening to the fantasy broadcast was like watching the game alongside two whip-smart former pros who are having a blast. It was great fun.

The fantasy broadcast is the start of something big for Yahoo’s coverage.

Dornbusch notes that this is how most people experience the game—as fans, with biases and feelings and money on the line—and thinks Yahoo can cover it that way, too. He points to examples like Bill Simmons, formerly of ESPN and now at HBO, who created a huge following in large part because of his aggressive homerism and love of Boston teams. “I’m resolute to allow our talent to be more subjective and invested in the things they’re passionate about,” he says. “That makes for better entertainment. It makes them care more, which makes the audience care more.”

That means letting talent talk about their favorite teams, their favorite players, and especially their fantasy teams. If Yahoo is the future home of football, fantasy will be a big part of it. During the pregame show—which, don’t forget, is called Fantasy Football Live—every player card they showed included the player’s positional fantasy rank. Just before the game started, everyone in the green room was on their phones setting their lineup. During the broadcast, Yahoo fantasy expert Brad Evans dropped in a few times to talk about how different players were doing in Yahoo leagues. When the guys discussed aplayer’s performance, they didn’t discuss his yardage or touchdowns. They talked about fantasy points. They also discussed his dollar value in daily fantasy, an increasingly key part of the Yahoo Sports puzzle.

Part of what Yahoo hopes to do with fantasy in general is bring more people into watching sports. Fantasy is to football what your bracket pool is to March Madness: an easy wayto get excited about a few teams before you get hooked on the game. It’s just one part of the challenge facing Yahoo, too. A big part of its pitch to the NFL was its ability to turn a billion monthly Yahoo users into viewers. There was an in-game video with Katie Couric, anotherwith tech columnist David Pogue, and lots of entertainment-meets-sports coverage around the game. Still, Dornbusch cautions that such additions arepart of a bigger show. “There was so much publicity and so much attention just to an NFL game being live-streamed and free on the web, that we wanted that to be the focus.”

About that. On Monday, Yahoo proudly declared there had been 33.6 million streams of the game by 15.2 million unique viewers in185 countries. Big numbers indeed. But when you consider that, for instance, the game autoplayed for anyone who went to Yahoo.com during, the streaming figures seem dubious. The more telling number may be the 2.3 million viewers for an average minute of the game. (There were likely peaks and valleys, but that number compares more closely to how Nielsen measures TV.) That’s a fraction of thenumber that watch even a crappy game on TV.

Yahoo says the stream went well, but from the numbers and tweets, it’s hard to tell.

Reviews ofthe stream itself were all over the map. You didn’t have to look far to find the furious, the amazed, and everything in between. At one point, many were complaining about an intermittent beeping on the broadcast—it turned out to be a part of the NFL’s feed, and was resolved quickly. Personally, my viewing experience was solid, though there were one or two jumpy spots. Yahoo says its rebuffering ratio was near one percent, meaning 99 percent of the broadcast streamed perfectly to everyone.

The NFL, for its part, is happy. No one at the league got back to us, but Commissioner Roger Goodell told NFL.com he was pretty stoked. “It took a game that was going to have a limited amount of distribution on television—it probably would have gone to 10 percent or less of the country on Sunday had we not chosen this distribution,” he said. “We reached new fans through this platform. We can really formulate our media strategy and how we can continue to reach the broadest number of fans.”

Yahoo is stoked too. As the post-game show ended—long after an epic Bills comeback gave Morrison plenty of shots back at King on the fantasy broadcast but ultimately ended in 34-31 win for King’s Jaguars—the Yahoo team celebrated. People popped champagne, drank up, then went home, presumably to bed. The feeling within Yahoo is that they’ve proven themselves a worthy partner to the NFL, and they hope to do more live sports soon.

There’s more to do. The Yahoo crew is thinking about DVR-type experiences, more ways to watch and share the game, and an easier way to find the alternative broadcasts. Dornbusch has lots of ideas about how to integrate more content, more fantasy, more fan perspective.Narayan—the guy everyone callsPPSN—knows the network and streaming performance can be even better. But if this was a trial, it was a successful one.

Now comes the part where Yahoo arguesover billions of dollars with ESPN, Fox, and who knows who else. We’ve all seen what sports on the Internet looks like. It looks pretty good. Everyone’s going to want in.

UPDATE 10/28 12:39PM: We originally wrote that Yahoo streamed 1080p footage—it was actually 720p. (1080p would’ve been nice, though, come on guys.)

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