Google’s big rights grab for the NFL Sunday Ticket will usher in a lot of new features for football fans, including remixed content of game day footage via YouTube Shorts and a multi-screen tool called “Mosaic Mode” that YouTube TV subscribers have been craving for some time.
One thing NFL Sunday Ticket probably won’t bring to YouTube’s streaming platforms next year: Broadcasts in ultra-high definition (4K).
During a recent interview with tech publication The Verge, YouTube’s Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan said Google’s multi-year deal with the National Football League doesn’t include a requirement that YouTube or YouTube TV offer the out-of-market Sunday afternoon games in a higher resolution than what is provided by the networks.
“There’s nothing specific about that in this deal,” Mohan said when asked if Google would be streaming the games in 4K.
The reason likely has to do with how the NFL games are distributes across broadcast television: Currently, CBS and Fox holds the national distribution rights to NFL games played on Sunday, except for a prime-time, national evening game that airs on NBC.
Both CBS and Fox broadcast multiple games at one time, and offer a selection of games to viewers depending on where they live. Typically, games that are offered in a particular region involve teams that are local or pseudo-local, or games where the outcome could have implications on the standing or the playoff chances of a local team. The NFL Sunday Ticket, which has been exclusive to DirecTV for the better part of two decades, offers extreme football fans, fantasy football players and sports betters access to all games aired on local CBS and Fox stations.
When the package was offered by DirecTV, the satellite provider simply passed along the games in whatever resolution were being broadcast by CBS and Fox. Typically, CBS offers the games in an interlaced format with 1,080 lines of resolution — better known as 1080i — while Fox offers the games in a progressive scan format with 720 lines of resolution (720p).
Both 1080i and 720p are typically considered high definition, and networks argue that both formats have their advantages for sports fans (1080i has a sharper picture compared to 720p, but 720p’s use of progressive scan technology makes for smoother video). But for viewers with 4K-capable television sets, the lower resolution of the broadcast signals means the video isn’t quite up to par with streaming movies and TV shows offered on services like Netflix, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video.
Over the last few years, CBS, Fox and NBC have offered only the championship NFL game — the Super Bowl — in 4K through their streaming apps (and, more recently, on some services like YouTube TV and Fubo TV). But those 4K feeds are largely up-converted versions of what’s offered to everyone else in high definition: While motion graphics and score boxes are enhanced to take advantage of the sharper resolution on 4K TV sets, the field, sideline and announcer video itself is still just high definition.
Virtually none of the NFL’s pre-season, regular season or playoff games have been offered in 4K at all, and that appears unlikely to change for the time being.
“We haven’t gotten into production specifics [with the NFL],” Mohan told The Verge. “As you know, the Sunday Ticket package is basically the games that are produced by CBS and Fox. The regular season, Sunday games, out-of-market.”
Translation: The same feeds that CBS and Fox provide to broadcast TV viewers are going to be the same feeds that Google offers NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers through YouTube and YouTube TV when the rights transfer away from DirecTV, starting with the next football season.
That isn’t to say that will be the case forever: Broadcasters are already pushing for the adoption of a new technology called ATSC 3.0 that promises to deliver several enhancements, including support for 4K video signals. (The current technology, ATSC 1.0, doesn’t support anything better than high definition.) As more broadcasters sign on ATSC 3.0 signals, there will likely be a bigger push to offer more content in 4K.
Some broadcasters are already experimenting with offering select sports matches from other leagues in 4K — the recent FIFA 2022 World Cup soccer tournament, for example, offered 4K feeds, which were passed along by Fox Sports through their app, on ad-supported streamer Tubi and on some video platforms like Fubo TV and YouTube TV.
Even without 4K support, the NFL Sunday Ticket could still look better on YouTube compared to what was offered on DirecTV. Cable and satellite TV platform typically compress video signals to the point where most TV viewers notice digital blocks, or “artifacts,” around the edges of people and objects across channels. Sports fans typically notice this the most, due to the fact-paced nature of games where a lot of motion can result in more artifacts than what would normally be found on an ordinary TV show or movie.
Streaming services typically don’t have this problem: Platforms like YouTube and Amazon Prime Video use a mixture of new video codecs and advanced compression technology to send high-quality video feeds to streamers with few noticeable artifacts. Google, in particular, has been aggressively pushing for the adoption of a new video standard called AV1, which offers smaller streaming file sizes with better video quality. YouTube and YouTube TV both support AV1, and the technology is expected to be used by both platforms for NFL Sunday Ticket when it debuts next year.
The accessibility of NFL Sunday Ticket will likely make the lack of 4K video easier to forgive among hard-cord football fans. While DirecTV offered streaming access to NFL Sunday Ticket, it was mostly limited to those with home addresses where a satellite dish was impossible to install. Starting next year, anyone with a broadband Internet connection will be able to watch NFL Sunday Ticket by simply signing up for it through YouTube, or adding it on to their YouTube TV package, removing the friction of signing up for an ancillary service just to watch football.