Sometime around 3:30 p.m. local time in Los Angeles Sunday, the Rams and Bengals will kick off Super Bowl LVI. A few seconds later, fans glued to their TVs will see the ball fly through the air.
A few seconds later, cord-cutters watching on their app of choice will see the ball fly through the air.
A few seconds later, yet more digital viewers using different services will see the ball fly through the air.
A few seconds later, well, you get the idea.
The NFL is now in its second decade of streaming Super Bowls. Last year, 5.7 million streamed the game, nearly three times as many who did in 2018, the last time NBC aired the Super Bowl. Which means viewers are now accustomed to the costs of watching the game on anything other than traditional TV: Having to dodge spoilers online. Missing betting opportunities. Tackling the moral dilemma of when it’s safe to send that trash talk text. Engaging in the eternal debate over whether refreshing the feed might help, and then—a few seconds later—asking, Are we further behind now?
In those inevitable moments of frustration, it’s worth remembering the small miracle that is fairly reliable, near-live sports streaming. (What would Vince Lombardi have given to watch the big game from the back of an Uber?) Understanding how exactly images from SoFi Stadium are beamed to your devices also helps explain why tech still hasn’t caught up to the moment.
Data pulled from cameras is mixed with sounds and graphics, both in trucks outside the stadium and at a remote broadcast center, where a single video feed is created. That feed is then transmitted, via either fiber cables or satellite, to affiliate networks (your local NBC station this year). All of that takes a couple of seconds.
From there, affiliates make any necessary adjustments and send the signal to cable boxes and receivers in their area. Which is where the virtual cable providers come in. They receive that feed and convert the data format into something your phone or streaming box can handle. That means creating multiple versions, each recreated with multiple levels of quality.
When you click play, your device requests the video feed from a server, which sends it in chunks of several seconds each. All of those steps add up to a delay that these days often hovers between 20 and 40 seconds behind live. In part, that’s because the broadcast system is set up for the 98% of viewership watching non-live programming that don’t care about being a few seconds behind.
Sports-specific apps, on the other hand, can tailor their process for games. Generally, they pull national feeds rather than local ones, and can be set up to send video in shorter chunks, decreasing the time your device has to wait to receive the latest bit of action. Last year, the CBS Sports App put a special emphasis on decreasing latency. The result? According to data captured by The Streamable, the app’s feed was as quick as only two seconds behind cable. Yahoo Sports wasn’t far behind, at (Bills fans, avert your eyes!) 13 seconds. CBS’ all-purpose streamer, Paramount Plus, came in at 37 seconds behind cable during the test, one entire play clock worth of latency.
However, CBS’ speed came with a tradeoff, often delivering 720p video rather than 1080p. “Latency and quality are kind of tradable commodities,” said Peter Chave, principal architect at Akamai, which helps broadcasters deliver digital content. Chave studies Super Bowl streams the way Sean McVay breaks down defenses. Last year, he set up over a dozen feeds using eight different services on various devices, taping them all with a video camera to score their presentations and dissect their methods after the fact.
“It’s interesting to see how technology that we were talking about three years ago in standards committees, are they using it?” he said. “Sure enough, as the years have gone past, we’ve seen people… improve latency.”
Chave compares Akamai, which helps broadcasters deliver feeds around the world via cloud servers, to FedEx. And recently, the company has had success testing the equivalent of same-day shipping, getting latency into the three-to-five second territory on streams for a European sporting event. “This is still the bleeding edge of tech,” Chave said, and there’s a reason why it won’t be part of the experience Sunday.
One reason is advertisements. While this is less of a case during the Super Bowl, when national ads are part of the draw, sports streams are set up to allow apps to run individual micro-auctions for ad spots for each viewer right before an ad break, a process that can take a few seconds each time.
Another major reason is stability. While NBC will use the Super Bowl stage to display its new scoreboard overlay, networks are less likely to use their biggest event of the year as a debut for new tech workflows. Even at fuboTV, where sports betting integrations are increasingly part of the pitch, “Our customers continue to say that a stable stream is most important to them,” chief product officer Mike Berkley said.
Startups such as LiveLike are working on “spoiler prevention” software that stops overlaid chat messages from showing up prior to the bit of video they are associated with, while digital-first broadcasters like Amazon are likely to push the bar as well.
Chave said betting companies might stumble upon solutions, too, as they try to create fast, reliable methods of quickly sending and receiving information from users in various markets.
“A lot of what comes out of some of those explorations and first experiments and first products will be technologies and techniques that get back-fed into the broadcast space,” Chave said, “doing things like synchronization, bringing everyone closer together.”
Until then, fans will be stuck waiting, a few seconds at a time.