Early in the Tour de France this year, a horrible crash forced six riders to abandon -- including one, Fabian Cancellara, who finished the day with two broken vertebrae. NBC reported that 400,000 people had streamed the day's racing through its app. GoPro footage of the aftermath, shot by a mechanic, quickly blew up too.
Ten years ago, it would have been hard to imagine watching such a gnarly moment from the chest of a team mechanic. It would have been even harder to imagine watching it live from a smartphone while lying on the couch. Cycling is a niche sport in the US, and the rhythm of its biggest race -- five hours a day for 21 days! -- isn't exactly suited for network TV. Yet oddly enough, what once made it a stinker for traditional TV is exactly what makes it an ideal place for companies like NBC and GoPro to experiment with the future of how people watch sports.
AU Editor's Note: In Australia, excellent streaming of the Tour De France comes to us courtesy of SBS Australia.
This year's tour is currently speeding into Alps and into its final days. It's been a dramatic one: A staccato of crashes in the early stages. Acts of kindness as well as simmering dramas within the teams. The French media's accusations of doping on the UK's Team Sky, which has dominated the race, and the apparent hacking of leader Chris Froome's training data. And a zillion other micro-narratives that wind their way through this long, brutal race.
If you want to watch the full race every day -- and you should, since cycling is the kind of sport that gets more and more compelling in direct relation to how much you watch -- you have several options. If you don't pay for a premium cable package that includes NBC Sports, you could find a way around foreign stations that stream online, or download one of several tracking apps online. But if you don't mind paying, NBC offers two products that let you stream the race live, every day, on any device, without a cable contract: $US20 gets you access to NBC's Tour de France Live app for iOS or Android, or $US30 for a Tour de France web app for desktop (the pricing drops as the tour continues).
Paying $US30 for access to a streaming channel that only lasts for three weeks may seem ludicrous -- it is pretty ludicrous! -- but the app is solid. You can watch every stage live, but you can also replay them after the fact. There are no commercials. You can track Nairo Quintana using its GPS tracking feature, or follow him, Froome, and Contador as they duke it out on a climb up an elevation chart or course map. And you can do these things on all of your devices. This kind of data-rich development is slowly coming to other sports, too -- the MLB introduced a system called Statcast last year tied to its regular programming.
Streaming from a phone.
But most importantly, NBC's is a pretty damn reliable and high-def stream. You could watch Daniel Teklehaimanot become the first African to wear the King of the Mountains jersey while sitting on the bus. You could watch Tony Martin struggle with a broken collarbone, being pushed over the line by his teammates, streaming to your Chromecast. Whether or not you're a fan of the way NBC covers the tour -- obviously, in an ideal world this content wouldn't be tied to a network with exclusive broadcast rights -- they have got the delivery down pat.
As Jack Jackson, NBC Sports Group's VP of Product Development, told me recently, it takes the better part of a year to develop a reliable, consistent app. They work with a called Tour Tracker, a platform that produces the live streams for most of pro cycling's grand tours, which helps with the interface of the app itself. It's a bit like the relationship HBO has with MLB Advanced, which it contracted to handle its à la carte streaming service HBO Go after one too many users complained about their True Detective stream dropping out -- except in reverse, since NBC handles the streaming tech.
A view of the desktop app.
When it comes to streaming TV, experienced developers and designers are almost required for older networks looking to make the jump. "It's really helped us refine the interface put things in the right place and make the experience kind of slick and make sure its comprehensive," says Jackson. Every year, the network alters the app to keep up with the way the form factors are changing -- this year, it was the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.
Of course, NBC's app isn't without flaws: For example, the app doesn't remember where you left off if you navigate away. Not everyone loves NBC's resident commentators, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, either -- though this year, the network has drop-in cameos from the beloved and newly-retired Jens Voigt.
Tracking options in the mobile app.
The video itself comes mainly from the tour's own remarkable tech infrastructure, which includes wireless video cameras borne on the back of motorbikes that zip between breakaways and the peloton, helicopters that hover above the route -- which then transmit it to nearby planes. Wade Wallace's fantastic look into the bizarre and complicated tech infrastructure behind the broadcast explains:
Images from motorcycle and helicopter cameras are transmitted via VHF links to relay helicopters flying at ~600 meters altitude. The signal is then [retransmitted] to aircraft flying at 3000-8000 meters (dependent on weather).
Once the signal is sent to the helicopters and aircraft they are then relayed onto intermediate points sitting along the course (trucks which relay the signal onwards).
Traditionally, NBC would then edit, commentate, and broadcast that footage on NBC Sports. Allowing users to stream its broadcast without a cable contract -- aka à la carte television or over-the-top TV -- is something that most broadcast networks have been very hesitant to embrace. Yet the numbers on the app prove it's worth taking seriously: NBC says viewership is up by 32 per cent compared to last year.
The tour app, then, may be a model for other over-the-top streaming apps -- perhaps for much larger events. I asked Rick Cordella, NBC Sports' Senior VP, if the tour app could be a testing ground for similar apps for other, more high-profile sports events. "Absolutely," he responded, adding that NBC is experimenting with adding extra features and video in event-specific TV apps. "Each event or sport offers its own unique opportunity and we evaluate them individually."
One day, you might be able to stream all of a specific Olympic sport. Or maybe we'll finally be able to stream women's pro racing (I know I'd pay). The unbundling of cable TV might end up being expensive for users, but having access to niche events and channels would make it worth it.
Riding on the Handlebars
GoPro, which is the tour's official camera partner, started equipping riders' bikes with cameras for the first time last year, giving us our first comprehensive look at what life is like inside the peloton. Pro cycling is a deeply social and team-based sport, and seeing those crucial moments from a helicopter, or even from a motorcycle, isn't ideal -- POV video makes much more sense.
Throwing an elbow during a sprint.
This year, every stage includes at least eight different riders equipped with GoPros -- they change on a day-to-day basis -- which record the entire stage and deliver the video back to GoPro's team. Every evening, the company uploads a supercut of the most interesting moments from the day. You get to see the hardest sprints, the smartest tactics, and most dramatic moments from inside of the peloton.
You'll also see moments that broadcasters don't catch: Riders messing around before the start. Peter Sagan taking a selfie with a fan. Having a coke during a small moment of recovery. Communicating, struggling, and making jokes.
A crash during a rainy stage.
For fans, these are the moments that are really exciting; they provide context, a glimpse of culture and rapport, and ultimately make the actual race that much more interesting. For sponsors, they're another way to get their logos in front of viewers' eyes. That's a model that GoPro is very interested in owning across all kinds of sports and events: Earlier this year, the company started experimenting with streaming live video for the first time from the helmets of X Games athletes, and did the same for parts of the NHL's All-Star Game.
GoPro has big plans for live streaming from the handlebars of tour riders too. A report on the plans by Caley Fretz of Velo News a few weeks ago cited GoPro as saying that it plans to stream live from "every single bike in the Tour de France peloton" within two years.
Highlights from GoPro's first seven stages.
The company tested that idea this year during the neutral roll-out of the tour's second stage, before the racing had officially started -- a moment to test a live stream from riders' cameras. And while it was just a test, it likely won't be long before live video from riders' bikes finds its way onto our screens every day. It's just another example of how emerging technology has transformed the way a sport operates.
In some ways, GoPro and NBC are using the Tour de France in the same way: As a lab for future events. It's the ideal testing ground for experiments, since it's long enough to fix glitches and tweak code, but short enough that any one pricing model won't have the long-term impact of, say, an a la carte streaming option for an entire season of a sport. It's also small enough in the US that the network infrastructure required to support it isn't a huge resource suck, the way streaming the NBA finals online, or the final episode of Game of Thrones, might be.
It's a race that dates back to before television even existed -- but it's also a glimpse into the future of the business.