IBM Cloud Handles Growing Audience of U.S. Open Viewers Using Streaming Video

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2012-06-17

IBM Cloud Handles Growing Audience of U.S. Open Viewers Using Streaming Video

SAN FRANCISCO -- Millions of people around the world have been tuning in for the past week and today, June 17, via various modes of broadcast to the 112th U.S. Open golf championship for a lot of reasons. Among the usual ones are: a) witnessing the best golfers in the world competing on one of the toughest courses in the world, the San Francisco Olympic Club; b) enjoying the beautiful scenics; and c) watching a slow-moving event that serves as a tranquillizer against the harshness of the business week.

Oh, and also on that list would be to see if Tiger Woods could win a record 15th major tournament and separate himself from the rest of the history of golf. He came into the final round June 17 five strokes back but was still in the hunt for the title.

Turned out that it wasn't going to be Tiger's day on Father's Day, but it certainly was a memorable one for young Webb Simpson (pictured). Simpson carded 68 to win the Open by one stroke over 2010 champion Graeme McDowell and qualifier Michael Thompson. It was Simpson's first major tournament victory.

ESPN and NBC handled the live telecast in the United States and broadcast it in high-definition around the world. But in the last two years, a trend is apparent: The live TV broadcast of this and other events (such as the recently completed French Open tennis championships and the upcoming Wimbledon event) is slowly but surely being eclipsed in number of viewers by live streaming video being watched on iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets and standard PCs.

Video Streaming Market Rapidly Developing

 Seeing this market a year ago, IBM and the USGA (United States Golf Association) came up with a specific-use U.S. Open application for iOS and Android devices to go with a standard Web connection which enables the viewer to watch the tournament in high-definition wherever there is an Internet connection.

In the two years it's been available, the iOS U.S. Open app has been downloaded more than 1 million times -- including about 215,000 times for this year's tourney (up to Thursday, June 14, see graphic at left), according to IBM. The Android app had about 114,000 downloads as of June 14. These numbers will continue to increase as time goes on and as more people become aware of the apps.

"The whole idea here is to make an event like this available in high quality wherever and whenever a viewer wants to see it," John Kent, IBM's technology manager for sponsorships, told eWEEK. "One of the things we do for the USGA  is to help them take the tournament to the world. Some of that is capturing the scores and bringing it to the broadcast, but it's also bringing it to all the digital platforms out there."

Records Set for Mobile Device Engagement by Fans

Late in the day on June 17,  the USGA announced that the 2012 U.S. Open Championship set records for Website and mobile device engagement by golf fans.

Overall fan visits to during the week of the championship increased by 79 percent over the week of the 2011 championship, and fan viewership of live streaming video increased  210 percent over 2011, the USGA said.     

There were also significant gains in audience usage of mobile devices over the 2011 championship, driven in part by the introduction of a new app for Android OS devices. The USGA recorded a 44 percent increase in iPhone app downloads, and fans also followed the action on the mobile Website, which charted a 375 percent increase in overall visits compared to 2011.

The whole notion of the interactive Website is to enable the serious fan to follow the action in depth. From any of those previously mentioned devices, golf fans can stream live video, follow Twitter feeds or view "heat maps" of individual holes at the Olympic Club golf course. Heat is not meant to describe temperature; it means which holes are currently playing harder for the players at that particular time, due to wind or other conditions.

'Heat Maps' Show the Toughest Holes

On the heat map, the more difficult holes light up in the color red, the ones becoming moderately difficult turn yellow, and the ones recording the lowest scores of the day remain green. As the tournament proceeds during the day, all the scoring, weather conditions and other information is loaded into IBM's Cognos analytics application and relayed in real time to the webcast and digital appcasts to be viewed by golf fans -- serious and casual alike.

These heat maps (pictured at right) can be viewed side-by-side with the livecast of the event. So if Tiger Woods is teeing up on the 16th, and the 16th is glowing red, then the viewer will know the hole has been a tough one that day for most of the previous golfers and that Woods may have an additional challenge ahead of him at that moment.

IBM has built this new-generation publishing system inside its sports cloud and uses the system to stream digital video and added features (in this case, the heat maps) for a number of sporting events -- among them the tennis U.S. Open, Australian Open tennis championship and the aforementioned French Open and Wimbledon events.

Big Blue TV, Anyone?

In its own way, this is rapidly becoming a viable alternative viewing network, only a lot more portable than television. Big Blue TV, anyone?

"What most people don't realize is how complicated it is to stream all these various digital feeds to all the different platforms; plus, we do a backup stream for each of them," Kent said. "We can't afford to go down at any time, certainly. So this is where the cloud system becomes so valuable. Changes can be made very quickly on the fly, and the viewer notices nothing."

Can Quickly Make Fixes on the Fly

For example, Kent said, a NIC (network interface card) went dark during a key segment of a recent digicast, and IBM monitoring staff caught it immediately to reroute the feed through another server. No big deal. Making the changeover was simply a matter of dragging and dropping an icon on a screen from one place to another in the cloud setup. The new connection was made in a matter of merely a few (three or four) minutes.

In the old days of only a few years ago, that one operation alone might have taken a couple of hours or more to make all the connections, test and go live. "It's taken us a lot of time and effort to get to this level," Kent said, in a major understatement.

IBM's sports cloud has data centers located in three U.S. time zones: Mountain, Central and Eastern. They are accessed from all over the world for these events, as well as for many other non-television uses.

In putting these systems together in cooperation with Apple and Google for the iOS and Android apps, Kent said -- to the surprise of no one who knows how Apple operates -- that it had a much easier time adapting to Google's system than Apple's system.

Kent also said that in making fixes or upgrades to Big Blue€™s digicast software for the online appstore, it€™s much easier for IBM to work in the open-source Android world than it is the tightly guarded Apple environment.

The freely downloadable apps for iOS and Android are available now on the Apple and Android app stores.

New U.S. Open Website Now Online

For the 2012 event, IBM and the USGA also redesigned and launched an entirely new Website powered by IBM's cloud and featuring -- in addition to live-streaming video -- live scoring, interactive PlayTracker and access to Web and mobile applications. 

Why doesn't the USGA and IBM charge a bit and make a little money on the apps, instead of giving them away for free? Serious fans certainly wouldn't mind shelling out a few dollars to enjoy the convenience.

"We're collaborating with the USGA to connect fans to the U.S. Open, no matter where they are located," said Rick Singer, vice president of Client Executive Marketing for IBM, the official Information Technology partner of the USGA. "Our goal is to help golf fans feel like they're on the course and part of the action in every round -- from the first tee shot to the last putt on the 18th hole."

Editor's note: This story was updated to include new user engagement statistics for streaming video coverage of the U.S. Open.

Chris Preimesberger is eWEEK's Editor for Features and Analysis. Twitter: @editingwhiz


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