DFL on the new Bundesliga season, broadcast innovations and the evolution of fan engagement

A group of testers watched the Bundesliga Supercup 2021 as an augmented reality (AR) projection, as part of a DFL pilot project to learn more about the media usage habits of the future

When the Bundesliga kicked off the 2021-22 season on 13 August, the German Football League (Deutsche Fußball Liga – DFL), along with its host broadcast subsidiary Sportcast, sprang into action to bring all the excitement from the pitch to both German and global audiences. At the same time, it was also planning a flurry of trials and showcases for new innovations developed inhouse, which were hosted at the SuperCup match that took place on 17 August.

Andreas Heyden, the DFL’s executive vice president for digital innovations, spoke to SVG Europe about the federation’s evolving innovation strategy, and the many new developments that have come to the fore in the last month.

Pushing creativity

Heyden comments on why the DFL is pushing its creativity for the clubs, for fans and for broadcasters: “It’s a 120 year old game where the rules never changed for football, so we have to be able to tell stories differently. We always try out new cameras, like the rail cam, to create new points of view. We were the first to integrate the spider cam as a regular league product. We were the first to do 3D, and the first to shut it off again. We were the first with 4K UHD. I would say the only ones beating us on quality would be [FIFA for] the World Cup; that would be our benchmark because they spent way more money than us. But when you talk about leagues, I think we’re hard to beat on quality, and innovation driven by digital.

“We’re coming from licenses for broadcasters for passive fans, now to sports content solutions with creating the live product and on demand and in-match product, for active fans who want to participate with the content”

“We believe that personalisation and localisation are major drivers of innovation,” continues Heyden. “Also, artificial intelligence (AI). We’re now offering a Star Cam, where data from the match follows the player. We now offer automated highlight clips via WSC Sports, the Israeli start up, where minutes after the match day or the game or the conference, you can get [for instance] a cut of all actions of all Japanese players sent out automatically with on-air graphics to the Japanese broadcasters. We have a football archive [DFL Media Hub, a 175,000-plus-hour inventory of video recordings] where nearly every frame is tagged, so if you want to see Lewandowski [Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich] sat in the rain, you could find that video scene for it because with AI and machine learning and our partnership with AWS, we are able to create this depth of content.”

DFL now controls a full glass to glass strategy, from the camera lens to the viewers’ screen, and the production and value chain inbetween. “We understood we have to act like a media company to service media companies best,” notes Heyden.

The DFL also produced Supercup 2021 in 9:16 format for the first time, for viewers using mobile devices

Full transformation

The full understanding of what that concept meant, and the resulting transformation into an end to end media services business, began from the 2015/16 Bundesliga season with 21st Century Fox deal for North and Latin American territories, plus most of Asia.

“I think the first decision [in this process] was the in-housing of competence,” notes Heyden. “Not being reliant on a Mediapro because everything that Laiga does that is innovation on broadcast, is done by Mediapro and not LaLiga, or Premier League with IMG. When we say, “we need this competence inhouse because we want to do something different,” I don’t want to go out and shop for vendors. I have my daughter company [Sportcast]. I go to them and say, “I want to put a vertical camera into the stadium”. And they say, “okay, we can do it in three weeks”. Done.”

He continues: “In 2015, the whole transformation started. The first was we decided to produce our own TV signal, to own every camera in the stadium, and to have full control of what’s happening in the stadium. Our business model starts with the recording of the game, and that’s when Sportcast, our daughter company, was founded. They have produced over 10,000 football games, they produced for the FIFA World Cup games, for UEFA, and for other sports, so they are, I would say, the most experienced football production company.”

“In 2013, DFL Digital Sports was founded, the company that I’m also responsible for, where we produce our own international TV programme, where we produce our own web and apps and digital services, our own inhouse creative agency. And in 2016 Sportec Solutions was founded as a JV with Deltatre, where we founded a subsidiary which solely has the purpose of creating the data layer for our own purposes, but also for the media product.

“Over this journey of the last 10 years, the takers, the licensees, have also changed. We’re coming from licenses for broadcasters for passive fans, now to sports content solutions with creating the live product and on demand and in-match product, for active fans who want to participate with the content.”

DFL launched an innovative Interactive Feed so fans can watch more, how they want

SuperCup 2021 extravaganza

Advancing that content solution requirement are a series of innovations launched by the DFL in August this year, ready for the new season for the benefit of both fans and broadcasters. The DFL launched a plethora of innovations at the SuperCup on 17 August, marking the culmination of a year of development at this match which provided a live test bed and showcase.

Heyden says: “Our last public presentation and experimentation was in fall 2019. In 2019, we did the first vertical video production, we did the first 5G use case, and more. Then from February 2020, lockdown, and there was not even a way for us [to try out new developments]. Thankfully we found a way together with politics, with the government, with the local authorities, with health experts, to find a way to come back to the stadium. We were the first league to restart after lockdown, and then gradually more and more spectators [were allowed] in.

“And now with this season, we are allowed to be back in the stadium, talk to people who are not players or medical staff or coaching staff, invite press, invite guests. The Supercup was the first event [to allow all of this] so everything that we have worked on but we haven’t tested in the stadium, we tested for the first time, and it worked.”

At the match between Borussia Dortmund and Bundesliga champions FC Bayern München, live signal innovations included: rail cam – installed along the touchline, rail cam can accelerates to speeds of five metres per second and allows viewers to experience some of the most thrilling scenes of the match from a whole new and dynamic perspective; a fully manoeuvrable drone – compact and highly accurate, it can also be used indoors; a cinematic look – this special camera system offers exceptional depth of field, rendering the match even more dynamic and vivid in colour.

In addition to these innovations on the live signal, the DFL offered its national and international media partners a whole range of new broadcast options for the Supercup and beyond, including star cam, an automatically manoeuvrable camera that focuses on individual players and follows them around the pitch on the basis of live tracking data. It also provided the signal in Germany streamed live and continuously on SAT.1’s ‘ran’ sports programme, and Sky.

Going vertical

Also, with a specially provided set up comprising of nine cameras and a separate directorial team, the DFL also produced Supercup 2021 in 9:16 format for the first time, for viewers using mobile devices. This feed was made available on the TikTok profiles of OneFootball in Brazil and ran in Germany.

Also in August, DFL launched the Bundesliga Next app, which is aimed at children and young people from the age of 10 and focuses on video content from the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2. Around 2,000 post-produced clips were available on the app at launch. Importantly, the Next app is based in a secure environment to enable children to enjoy content, and to give parents peace of mind.

The Next app builds on the DFL’s official TikTok channel that launched in February; now it has around 1.5 million followers, around 300 million video views and almost 25 million likes, all with no marketing spend.

Comments Heyden on the vertical camera format: “You can’t show the game at the fullest because you’re always restricted and trust me, we see it in our data; you can see it with JavaScript that people don’t turn their phone [horizontally] to see [the match being played in the best format]. They’d rather accept a crappy view than go through the pain of turning the phone around, especially on older phones where there’s not such a strong processor. So two projects came out of [this issue]. The first project was in 2019, the first proof of concept of native 9 by 16 broadcast with a vertical camera, plus editing rooms.

“And next, Bundesliga’s Next app. We’ve had a tremendous success on TikTok, where we’ve been live roughly half a year, have 1.5 million followers, and we didn’t do any marketing. So there was a demand and a young target group for us. And for sure, we produced vertical video and nice clips, specialised for it.

Heyden continues on the Next app: “[We thought] if we don’t service the Generation Alpha’s and the very young Gen Z’s, how else would they consume the content? Pirated websites? Doesn’t make sense. On more adult way of storytelling on YouTube, which is more ‘broadcast on digital’ than digitally going digital? No. So we took everything that we learned from TikTok, to take this kind of content, have a nice seamless vertical video, thumb up swiping experience, [and created the] Bundesliga Next app targeted to the young target group. We don’t do anything with the data, so no marketing, no linking, no sponsoring, nothing; just a pure on-demand and storytelling service to the young target group to make content accessible to them. We launched in Germany.”

The DFL used handheld cameras for a cinematic look and feel at this year’s SuperCup

With its interactive feed for the SuperCup 2021, the DFL also unveiled its first-ever live stream in which viewers could choose for themselves which match statistics they wanted to see. On their computer or smart device, they were able to call up whatever data they wanted, whenever they wanted it. Thanks to detailed and comprehensive data acquisition by the DFL, viewers could choose from a wide range of match and player data.

The DFL additionally conducted a pilot project to learn more about the media usage habits of the future. A group of test people watched Supercup 2021 as an augmented reality (AR) projection. Wearing special AR glasses, they saw the live stream and also real time statistics and match graphics, as well as the pitch with the position of all the players in a miniature 3D projection.

And there’s more…..

Also in August this year, the DFL upgraded the Bundesliga app, with a strong focus on increased personalisation with an enhanced Recommendations feature based on user preferences to gear the content provided by the app towards the individual user’s interests.

In March this year the Bundesliga’s International Product Portfolio (IPP) was upgraded with near-live reporting for digital channels added. Following a two year development phase, DFL and all Bundesliga clubs have jointly launched the ‘Social Media Matchday Feed’. It provides custom-tailored content, allowing Bundesliga media partners, viewers and fans to follow matchday events even more closely.

What this effectively means is individual club staff are able to capture content on whichever device their club prefers, check it for club approval, then submit it to the DFL and Sportcast’s editors who will shape it and distribute it. The match-specific Matchday Feed is based on a framework for centralised quality assurance and distribution on a CMS custom-developed for the DFL by partner, Greenfly, a digital media collection and distribution platform.

Again in August, the DFL expanded its IPP so that, for the first time, it includes live graphics and highlight clips as part of all Bundesliga 2 transmissions. DFL can now provide an enhanced live signal for all Bundesliga 2 fixtures of the season using AI and streaming technology. Graphical information, such as team line ups, the current score, or overlays playing back special scenes such as goals or penalties, as well as statistics shown as Bundesliga Match Facts powered by AWS, are automatically generated and displayed in real time.

The automatically manoeuvrable Star Cam was used by the DFL for SuperCup 2021

Yet AI does not mean people are being replaced at the DFL, claims Heyden. He explains: “We have highly trained, highly creative, highly motivated editors. But I don’t want them to do [basic] in, out, in, out, in, out [cuts]. We give them a pre-production tool optimised by AI, [which lessens the work by making a rough cut of footage according to specifications] and then they can tell a great story. And on AI with cameras, it wouldn’t make sense to pay a camera operator to follow a single player, or when the price of cameras goes down to put in two cameras at the same time, just following the star players Haaland [Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund] against Lewandowski. It wouldn’t make sense to employ a camera operator for this; he or she would go crazy doing that. So data can do that better.

“[And also for] AI Bundesliga Match Facts with AWS; we launched six already and two more are coming in the next match days. They help to tell a different story because you have a different data point. Now with data we can tell and prove facts, and we can provide our broadcasters with additional stories. So we have a commentary live system that every broadcaster or OTT player gets, where there’s a live stream, there’s data, and there are stories. We push interesting stories to commentators on this live stream, with the power of AI suggestions.”

Heyden concludes: “A league has some fundamental functions. It has a function of organising a match plan, it has a function of licensing clubs and players, and it has a function of the centralised collection and distribution of money, and it has a general counsel role when it comes to legal questions. But the part of how do you service people that buy licenses from you and create their own product programme from you, started roughly 10 years ago, and it is rapidly changing.”

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