This year's Super Bowl once again will be livestreamed for free online. And CBS, which has the broadcast rights to the 2021 NFL championship game, is expecting a record rushing record from the internet.
"Every year I feel like we're on the verge of breaking the internet," says Jeff Gerttula, EVP and GM of CBS Sports Digital.
He's only half joking. CBS Sports Digital has stress-tested its streaming infrastructure for the past year leading up to Super Bowl LV on Sunday, Jan. 7, to make sure it can handle the load. The company is streaming not only the main event -- with Patrick Mahomes' Kansas City Chiefs taking on Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- but also all national ads, the halftime show featuring the Weeknd, and pre- and postgame coverage.
The Super Bowl's streaming viewership has steadily ticked up since making its online debut (in 2012 by NBC). Last year, Fox said Super Bowl LIV delivered an average minute audience of 3.4 million across digital platforms, up 30% from the 2.6 million for CBS the year prior.
Gerttula won't say how many streamers he expects for Super Bowl LV but he says CBS Sports Digital has engineered its infrastructure to provide headroom for spikes in traffic.
"We're building for far greater [streaming demand] than we think it's going be," he says. "It's about capacity, efficiency and redundancy. You're trying to prepare yourself for every situation."
To be sure, most people will still watch the Super Bowl on TV: More than 97% of Fox's total audience last year tuned in on the broadcast. But 2021 is shaping up to be the biggest for Super Bowl streaming yet. According to a survey Roku fielded to customers the first week of January 2021, 42% said they plan to stream the game while 44% said they plan to watch on traditional linear TV (although as you would expect, Roku users overindex on streaming vs. the general population).
Amazon, which says its Fire TV streaming devices have more than 50 million monthly active users, is expecting Super Bowl LV to be the most-streamed TV event to date. "In the last year, more sports fans have cut the cord than ever before and will be streaming the Super Bowl on their Fire TV for the first time," says Sandeep Gupta, GM and VP of Amazon Fire TV.
On streaming platforms, CBS's Super Bowl LV coverage will start at 2 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 7. Kickoff time from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET.
The Super Bowl LV stream will be available free to U.S. viewers across an expanded lineup of platforms and devices, including at CBSSports.com (no login required); on the CBS Sports app for devices and services, including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, and iOS and Android devices; and via the CBS All Access subscription service. The CBS Sports app also is now available on LG and Vizio internet-connected TVs. "It's important to us to get into more places," Gerttula says.
CBS Sports Digital's tech team has focused on reducing latency of the Super Bowl stream -- which historically has been between 30 to 60 seconds (or more) behind the linear TV feed. In 2020, the Fox Sports app was an average of 47 seconds behind the live game, per data compiled by video-streaming provider Phenix; the year prior, the CBS Sports app's latency was 28.2 seconds, according to Phenix.
Gerttula wouldn't quantify how much CBS Sports Digital is aiming to cut that lag, which is dependent on a number of factors (including location, device and service provider of the end viewer). He says the team has simplified workflows and looked for ways to remove bottlenecks at different points. "There's not a single magic bullet," he says.
CBS will not deliver the Super Bowl LV stream in 4K or HDR, as Fox Sports did last year. The COVID-19 pandemic caused CBS Sports to put that on the back burner as it has made the priority getting a reliable and high-quality HD video stream to viewers. Says Gerttula: "It's not the event you want to try something new."
In addition to CBS digital properties, the game will be streamed for free on NFL digital properties across devices, and on mobile via the participating teams' mobile properties, and Yahoo Sports and other Verizon Media mobile properties. It will also be available in Spanish on ESPN Deportes and ESPN digital platforms. Meanwhile, CBS Sports HQ, the free 24-hour streaming sports news network, will have live coverage from Tampa leading up to Super Bowl and on game day will stream live pregame coverage and postgame analysis and highlights.
To Tedd Cittadine, Roku's VP of content distribution, the expected supersize Super Bowl online audience is fresh evidence of the ascendancy of streaming -- as cord-cutting continues to eat away at legacy cable and satellite TV subscribers.
"What we are seeing with the Super Bowl data, where Roku users are split basically evenly between those who will watch on traditional TV and those who will stream it, is that the legacy sports hooks are no longer holding audiences to pay TV the way they once did," Cittadine said. "As millions of fans make this Sunday a streaming Super Bowl event we are seeing another sign of the future where all content will be streamed."
Gerttula, who will be monitoring CBS Sports Digital's operations on Sunday, says he's hopeful for a close game between the Bucs and Chiefs. "We want a second-half spike," he says. "That's what determines the year-over-year viewing lift."