For the past three decades innovations in sports broadcasting occurred at a modest pace. The most notable that come to mind are things that sports fans now take for granted. Examples include the scorebug on screen, the digital 1st and 10 line in football, the pitch tracker in baseball, the hawk-eye instant replay in tennis, and the infamous glowing puck in hockey that came and went. Of course, the biggest leap forward was moving sports production to HD. There was also an attempt at 3D sports production which ultimately failed.
However, we are now seeing rapid advancements in technology and innovative workflows that are dramatically changing the production of live sports and how viewers experience them.
Mark Milliere, an experienced sports broadcasting executive and media consultant, explores these changes.
Local and Niche Sports now Have a Platform
Not too long ago it was impossible for niche sports, local leagues, and even regional leagues to find distribution and affordable production. With the exception of community television or a local tv station broadcasting some games, large inventory of games were played without a broadcast. Today, widely deployed high-speed internet and advancements in AI-automated production have dramatically changed this.
Companies such as GameOnStream and Pixellot Automatic Production, now make it possible for any league, team, or school regardless of their size to offer both live streaming of their games and video on-demand replays. These streams can be viewed over any connected device including tv’s, laptops, tablets, and phones. Costs are kept low, as there are no humans involved in the productions. AI-automated cameras track the player action. Multiple camera angles are provided with the user given the ability to choose which camera angle to watch. Real-time data is integrated into on-screen score clocks so viewers always know the time and score. Furthermore, these portals can be branded and offer sponsor and advertising opportunities.
Innovation Making More Production Possible at Lower Costs
Larger scale productions at networks are also taking advantage of the ability to deliver multi-camera signals, microphone audio and data over fibre or IP to a central control room location. These productions still use camera operators on-site and some engineering/audio support, but the bulk of the production crew doesn’t travel to the event. These are referred to as REMI (Remote Integration) or “remote at home” productions.
The savings of not driving a full production truck to an event, and not travelling a crew are significant. The option exists to not even travel commentators, and simply have them call the broadcast in a voice booth in studio. The graphics, tape roll-ins and replays can all originate from this centralized location. This concept is also employed during the Olympics by various countries for many sports. Universities and colleges are other institutions taking advantage of a centralized production hub.
Harvard Athletics is a great example of a university using this technology to allow them to cover more sports with less cost. It used to be that only the highest profile sports on campus received a broadcast. Today, Harvard produces around 300 varsity sporting events each year. For games on campus, the Harvard production team brings camera feeds back to centralized control rooms, utilizing IP technology. It has made coverage of more obscure sports like fencing possible. The additional broadcasts proved valuable as it caught the attention of streaming services hungry for content. In 2018, ESPN signed a 10-year broadcast agreement with the Ivy League, providing more than 1,100 game streams for viewing on ESPN+.
Moving to the Cloud
The next evolution is Virtual Production, one that does not need a central production facility and therefore can be produced anywhere there is solid internet connection. Instead of hard-wired cameras and microphones, these devices will use wireless connectivity to a cloud-based production service. No heavy production equipment and no wires. The sports event can be produced via an app on a tablet, laptop, or even a smartphone. The production can be augmented with multiple video monitors and audio speakers/headsets and return channels for communications (IFB) and video returns are all capabilities. Virtual Productions will scale up over time, as the technology continues to advance.
Broadcasters now can be live from anywhere. Years ago, being live from the field or where there was no landline connectivity meant the need for a satellite or microwave truck. Those days are long gone, as reporters transmit live over internet and cell connections. Innovations in bonded cellular now make it possible to broadcast multi-camera productions for sporting events with geographic limitations.
Harvard University mentioned earlier, adopted bonded cellular technology to broadcast rowing, perhaps one of the most challenging events when it comes to connectivity. They successfully used a LiveU HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) Solution to produce regular season races, as well as the Ivy League Rowing Championship. The results were so successful they continue to add more cameras, including live drones to the coverage.
Golf is another sport where bonded cellular is providing an economical solution for coverage. Traditionally, golf is a very expensive set-up with long cable runs. Smaller golf productions can now use wireless multi-camera coverage using bonded cellular to transmit. Think of any sporting event with tough terrain limitations, and there is now a solution.
The widespread deployment of 5G over the next few years will solve two existing problems: bandwidth and latency. That will facilitate and accelerate the implementation of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality. It has the potential to transform the in-stadium experience for fans.
For broadcasters, it also will be a leap forward. Initially the cost may be prohibitive, but like all technologies the cost will come down, and it will eventually be cost effective. NBC Sports successfully tested a 5G wireless field camera in 2019 during an NFL Game. The camera outputted a low latency high quality signal delivered in near real-time. 5G’s essentially instant wireless connectivity means that cameras can be untethered, allowing for more creative camera positions and angles throughout the game and reducing set-up time and costs required for camera system integration.
Sports Tech Consultants Can Help
Sports production and fan interactions are now entering a transformational era. When a company is trying to bring an innovative sports product to the market, the services of a sports technology consultant like Mark Milliere can be extremely helpful. Milliere can help a company examine why a product is or is not working and give technical help and suggestions.