Driving awareness: BT Sport on bringing inclusivity to live sport with its New Signing initiative

BT Sport’s New Signing presenters getting stuck into the job at Chelsea FC

BT Sport is taking significant strides in its goal to make live sport more inclusive and accessible to all with its New Signing initiative, which aims to raise the profile of the deaf community within sport.

New Signing is the latest BT Sport initiative, supported by EE as part of its long-term partnership with each of the four Home Nations Football Associations, to support the growth of disability football on and off the pitch.

Head of BT Sport, Jamie Hindhaugh, tells SVG Europe: “This is part of our current strategy that you will have seen a change in over the past couple of years, around making sure inclusivity and accessibility is front and foremost to what we do.

“This current project we’re working on is probably one of the projects I’m most proud to be associated with, because I think it really is leaning into the heart of what the challenges are [for inclusivity and accessibility in sports broadcasting] and helping us learn and giving people the opportunity to really be truly accessible as a sports broadcaster.”

On the pitch for the Chelsea versus Fulham match in January 2023, new BSL presenters for BT Sport, Rolf Choutan [far left] and Damaris Cooke [standing next to Choutan]

British Sign Language on screen

In January this year BT Sport announced that new presenters, Damaris Cooke and Rolf Choutan, were joining BT Sport and EE’s New Signing initiative to provide British Sign Language (BSL) presentation around a range of live televised sport in 2023, including June’s UEFA Champions League Final.

“I do think there is a genuine realisation across our industry that all audiences are important and therefore if there are things we can do to make them feel more involved, that people are doing it”

The two new BSL presenters have three roles within BT Sport: they are being provided with further training; they are making a six-part docu-series charting their time with BT Sport; and they are being part of selected live football coverage.

“There’s also a bit of fun behind this as well, with some great content coming out of it.”

Hindhaugh continues: “We’re introducing two great personalities [with Cooke and Choutan]. We’re creating some great content off the back of this and we’re also developing them as [individual presenters] as well. What I like about it is we are putting our money where our mouth is; we’re not just saying this is a real issue or this is something that needs to be addressed.

“We’re saying, currently, in the present, we are doing this programme format to enable us to understand the opportunity and to also create great content that engages our audiences and brings awareness of some of the challenges and issues around being a deaf sports fan, for want of a better term.”

The documentary series following Cooke and Choutan’s journey debuted on BT Sport 1 and EE platforms on 4 February.

BT Sport announced that new BSL presenters, Damaris Cooke [left] and Rolf Choutan [right] were joining the broadcaster to increase accessibility for sports fans

From showcases to mainstream

BT Sport began its journey to improve the inclusivity and accessibility of its offering two years ago with the far-reaching broadcast of the FA Disability Cup in summer 2021. This had BT Sport 3 showing enhanced Audio Description delivered by an expert based at St George’s Park, BT Sport Extra 1 showing BSL with the live coverage, and sub-titles were available on BT Sport 1. Meanwhile, BT Sport Ultimate provided coverage in up to 4K HDR picture quality. The broadcaster repeated this accessibility reach for the 2022 FA Disability Cup.

Comments Hindhaugh: “This was where we took a disability event and made sure we had three different feeds on it, making sure it was totally accessible.”

However, he says the New Signing move of BSL for mainstream matches is taking the issue of inclusivity one step further: “[The FA Disability Cup is] an event that is about disability, therefore supported for the disability audience. What New Signing is about is taking a normal sports event and ensuring that people can engage with that sports event in the same way, regardless of the fact they have a hearing challenge.”

Through the mainstreaming and normalisation of broadcast accessibility to sports fans, Hindhaugh hopes to drive audience awareness while providing people with new opportunities. Hindhaugh says: “The key thing for me is at BT Sport, we’re very proud of the fact that we want to be the most inclusive broadcaster in the world. The Disability Cup engages a different audience and drives awareness, and this project is all about driving awareness.

“The thing I love about it is it’s giving people opportunity, doing it in the way we’re doing it, with the format we’re doing it, and with that competitive element about being involved, giving them training, and enabling them to be involved on something like the Champions League Final,” he says. “If nothing else, it drives huge awareness, drives empathy, and makes everyone think, and that includes ourselves.”

Hard at work during the match, Damaris Cooke and Rolf Choutan, new BSL presenters for BT Sport

Genuine realisation

When working on the Disability Cup, Hindhaugh previously told SVG Europe that one reason a significant level of inclusivity is not included in live sport by more broadcasters is the accumulative costs of producing an event in this way.

On how BT Sport was reckoning the costs of producing football with BSL presenters, Hindhaugh comments: “I think that’s an interesting question. For me, it’s about valuing your audience, especially a pay subscription service. You want to be as inclusive as possible to have the biggest audience then possible. I think value and cost are two very different things and I think if you want to be truly inclusive, surely you have to try and support all the audiences? You can’t just segment some off because it’s too expensive. But this whole project is about creating great content.”

Hindhaugh says he has noticed far more accessibility coverage overall across different broadcasters’ entertainment portfolios. He notes: “Being really candid, I think I am seeing a lot more. I think Strictly [Come Dancing] did a huge amount of good, brought a grown man like me to tears, which is very hard to do by the way. But I thought that was fantastic piece of TV and I think the awareness from that was massive. Also, you won’t believe this, but I watch programmes like Silent Witness at the moment and I see what they’re doing with deaf community. It’s really good for me to be able to watch that and see how they drop the backing sound and how they editorialise and approach that.

“I do think there is a genuine realisation across our industry that all audiences are important and therefore if there are things we can do to make them feel more involved, that people are doing it.”

As to BT Sport’s role, Hindhaugh says: “I think we are doing something that hasn’t traditionally been done in live sport, but I do feel, as a community and as a culture, that there is much more awareness now around some of the challenges that can be addressed with some clever thinking.”

He concludes: “We’re working on all of our plans for next season across all aspects.”

Chelsea Football Club stadium

Football Summit 2023 Taking place 22 March in Paris, the Football Summit will look at how we can continue to augment televised and online coverage of the beautiful game. For more information and to register visit svgeurope.org/football-summit-2023

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