AMSTERDAM -- IBC 2016 -- Directly ahead, a hulking linebacker is sizing me up ominously. Turning my head makes me recoil at the sudden proximity of my own teammates, and if I crane my neck I can see the expanse of the football field behind me. Yet I am also acutely and self-consciously aware that I am not about to bang into a padded giant but sitting on a cushioned bench.
This immersive, virtual-reality (VR) experience is the latest offering from New York-based NeuLion Inc. , one of the fastest-growing players in the market for live streaming of sports events to Internet-enabled devices. Game footage is recorded using a spherical camera developed by Finland's Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), equipped with eight sensors and microphones. After NeuLion has encoded the resulting video feed, it can serve the content over its digital platform to users with mobile gadgets and VR headsets. The demonstration to which I was treated in Amsterdam, at the International Broadcast Convention, used an Oculus Rift device.
NeuLion's VR tie-up with Nokia is part of a bigger push into Europe. Besides signing contracts with major new customers in the region, including the English Football League and Sky Sports, NeuLion recently acquired Saffron, a London-based, video-on-demand specialist that already counted UK telco BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) and German equivalent Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) as clients. "We gone from ten to 50 people in Europe," says Chris Wagner, NeuLion's executive vice president. "It has given us a bigger footprint and a broader market to sell to."
Despite its name, however, NeuLion has not just roared into life overnight. Founded way back in 2004, the US company merged with a Canadian video-streaming rival called JumpTV in 2008, when it began trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the NeuLion moniker.
Since then, it has built relationships with some of the biggest sports rights holders in the US, including the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and ESPN. Last year, it worked on about 63,000 live sports events in total, says Wagner, making $94 million in sales -- a 69% increase on the 2014 figure -- and $26 million in net profit. Employee numbers stood at 638 in February.
The journey has not been without its pitfalls, however. A year ago, NeuLion's share price took a battering after it lost streaming business with the National Hockey League, which sold media rights to the technology arm of Major League Baseball, a big competitor. The fear was that other business might go the same way.
That has clearly not happened. Although sales growth may have slowed, revenues in the first half were up nearly 14% year on year, to $50.4 million. The stock has also risen, valuing NeuLion at about 1.5 times its level this time last year. Wagner insists that NeuLion beats competitors hands down on video quality. Merchandising is another core differentiator, he says. "Our merchandising system is really strong," he says. "Promo codes, offers, packaged content storefronts -- we're really good at doing all that stuff."
Indeed, NeuLion boasts an end-to-end capability it believes most competitors lack. Its digital platform has eight components -- ingest, encode, edit, manage, monetize, protect, monitor and deliver -- whereas video-technology vendors such as Conviva Inc. , Elemental Technologies Inc. (ETI) and Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT) tend to focus on just one or two of these areas, reckons Wagner. "We're less complicated, everything is fully integrated, the total cost is lower and you get to market much quicker," he claims.
Big beasts are on the prowl, though. As systems integrators like Accenture , Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) take a growing interest in this market, NeuLion has been at work on improving the experience for users. The VR collaboration with Nokia is one sign of that. Moves to support Ultra HD content are another. In July, NeuLion began streaming Ultimate Fighting Championship matches in 4K format on Sony TVs. "You download the app on the TV and stream 4K live right to your set," says Wagner. "When it comes to 4K over the top, nobody else is really doing it right now."
That situation seems unlikely to last, putting pressure on NeuLion to keep innovating. But if it can turn the partnership with Nokia into customer deals, build a commercial advantage in the 4K area and expand quickly into Europe, it will be an even harder act to follow.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading