First for Scotland: QTV brings VAR to the Scottish Professional Football League

Inside QTV’s Clydesdale House VAR centre for Scottish Premiership football

As Scottish Premiership Football welcomed virtual assistant referee (VAR) technology for the first time on Friday 21 October, Glasgow-based outside broadcast facilities and production company, QTV, ensured the league and its referees were able to execute those split-second decisions with ease.

QTV is running the centralised VAR operations for the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) and Scottish FA. The technical services provider recently moved into its new production centre, Clydesdale House, which is the home for VAR in Scotland, as well as being home to the company’s expanded production offices and four state-of-the-art remote production galleries, each capable of delivering up to eight-camera broadcasts.

The VAR operations centre at Clydesdale House is the final part of QTV’s operations to come onstream, following the company’s move there in the summer. Over 120 Premiership matches will be remotely produced from Clydesdale House this season. As well as all Scottish Premiership matches, VAR will also be used for all Scottish Cup and Premier Sports Cup semi-final and final matches played at Hampden Park.

On how the first-ever use of VAR in Scottish Premiership football went, founder and CEO at QTV, Jack McGill, says it was a resounding success: “After months of careful preparation, week one was a triumph, although certainly not without stress and a unique intensity for everyone involved – referees included. I’m immensely proud of that triumph but under no illusions that the hard work has only just begun. As any good football manager would say, ‘we’ll take it one match at a time’.”

Critical role

QTV has played a critical role over the past 12 months in designing a technical workflow that would provide the best possible platform for VAR’s introduction into Scottish football, and also deliver a financially sustainable solution.

The provider has been producing Scottish Premiership coverage remotely for two seasons, but the company’s planned expansion into new premises was hampered by the COVID pandemic in 2020. In the intervening period, the VAR operations centre, where the Scottish FA referees are now based on matchdays, became an integral part of the centre’s design, which was delivered by systems integration specialist ES Broadcast.

Read more on QTV’s move to Clydesdale House here

McGill comments on the rush to build the new facilities over last summer, in time for the new SPFL season. “It was about a 10-week build. I think we were offline, off grid, for three days within that, while BT Media & Broadcast migrated over all of our connectivity between the Premiership grounds and here, but also between BT Tower and here. We didn’t have to turn down any work; we kept the order book full all through the summer, which was good.

“From a technological point of view, it’s an enormous step up, which is great. But from a cultural point of view as well as a company, it’s fantastic to be in a premises that’s purpose built for what we have to do, and gives us just a brilliant platform, a brilliant foundation, for whatever the next stage of growth is.”

He adds: “I suppose we had been in our old premises for maybe the first two years quite comfortably, and then I think from that point, which would have been about 2018, we started looking and thinking, ‘OK, if we’re going to grow at all, we need to be thinking about what’s next’. I think the inspiration to go down the route of remote production back in 2019 for the SPFL certainly allowed us to start to crystallise in our minds what that move might look like, and what kind of premises we were looking to move to.”

While the SPFL has a rights deal with Sky, which works with Cloudbass to produce its live televised Match of the Week, and a deferred transmission for matches with BBC Alba, which is produced by Irish production company Nemeton TV, QTV produces the other four matches in each fixture round which are produced live for club over the top (OTT) channels, but primarily for BBC highlights, the SPFL’S own highlights, and Sky’s international SPFL highlights.

QTV’s founder and CEO, Jack McGill

Clamour for VAR

When QTV went to the SPFL in 2019 with a pitch for the remote production of the league, McGill says: “I think in the back of our minds we already had it in our heads that it was necessary to do it that way for any number of reasons, carbon footprint being one, consistency of product being another, and cost of production being a third”.

He continues: “So there’s plenty of good reasons to do remote production. But the last part that definitely factored in our decision, was at the point at which the SPFL and the Scottish FA want to do VAR, if they’re going to do it properly, they’re going to need a VAR centre, because that’s the path down which most of the major European leagues have gone. There are very few European leagues left where VAR is actually operated from within the stadium.”

“You have to look at the resources available and cut your cloth accordingly. I think being able to design something technically that was cost effective, that you could sell to the clubs, that the clubs would buy into and support, I think was probably one of the biggest challenges”

“We knew that eventually, inevitably, Scottish Football would have to follow English Football, and the other major leagues in Europe, and we wanted to position ourselves as the front runner to be able to facilitate that for them,” he continues. “But the conversation around actually implementing VAR didn’t start until a year ago, in October last year. The clamour from managers, from the media in Scotland, had really started to ramp up over the course of the early part of last season and I had become aware that the Scottish FA were already some way down the line in their negotiations with Hawk-Eye, as the technology partner for implementing VAR, and I was concerned that nobody had come to speak to me about it. I inserted QTV into that conversation, and I said, ‘Look, you guys are clearly thinking about this, what are your plans? Have you considered how you’re going to implement it?’

“I see our role over the past 12 months as being that missing link that allowed them to say, ‘here’s what we would like it to be’, and for me to think about how that would impact on us as a host broadcaster, Sky, and BBC Alba as host broadcasters or rights holding broadcasters, and provide that technical [expertise].”

“From the moment that conversation started in October, it was obvious to us that any building that we were going to move into would need to have the space to accommodate a VAR centre,” continues McGill. “While the clubs didn’t end up voting on that until April, I think we just had to take it on good faith that our reading of the market within Scottish Football was that VAR was a desirable outcome.”

Logical step

At the time when VAR began to be a conversation at the Scottish FA, QTV was ingesting two matches per weekend into its building, which increased to three towards the tail end of the last season and four now. Comments McGill: “The fact that we had all of those camera feeds coming in and we had the relationship with BT Media & Broadcast meant we could make the next leap for the Scottish FA’s VAR plans for a remote centre, a cost effective one. We saw ourselves as the logical partner for VAR as well from a technology point of view, but also from a commercial point of view it was logical for them just to expand the scope of what we delivered for them on a weekly basis.”

QTV already had a technical design planned with BT Media & Broadcast for contribution from all the stadiums to deliver the remote production element of the SPFL to its new broadcast centre. To add VAR into the mix, the OB company simply had to work with BT Media & Broadcast to ensure there was sufficient capacity in the network, and with Hawk-Eye to increase network redundancy for VAR to the required levels.

McGill comments on the planning for VAR at Clydesdale House, which also had to factor in the size of the league and available resources: “You have to look at the resources available and cut your cloth accordingly. I think being able to design something technically that was cost effective, that you could sell to the clubs, that the clubs would buy into and support, I think was probably one of the biggest challenges.”

Testing times

Part of the hot swap from QTV’s old building to the new set up included a plan to have VAR ready for the start of the new football season, which meant making time for plenty of offline testing. The referees have been training in the room on live matches since Round Two, which was from the start of August.

There were 24 matches in total used for the testing of the VAR system prior to going live for the first time on 21 October, and says McGill on those tests, “everything has worked”. He laughs: “I can’t comment on the ref room decision within those 24 matches, but from a technical point of view, we’ve been really satisfied that everything has gone the way we expected it to go.”

Over the period of testing the only adjustment made has been to increase some resilience and redundancy for the start of the use of VAR, creating a diverse path all the way through the chain to give the referees and the Scottish FA a sense of comfort for the start of the use of the technology.

McGill comments on the results at Clydesdale House for VAR: “From a space point of view, it’s an interesting one. The space is really dictated by what the aspirations of the Scottish FA and SPFL are for what VAR looks like. You want it to look professional. You want it to be a badge of pride for Scottish Football, for its national reputation among fans, and our own domestic media, but also internationally among other leagues and football associations. You want to be able to walk into a room and say, ‘look, we’ve done this properly’. So I think we were conscious that we needed a space that would reflect that, and the technology workflow had to reflect that aspiration as well.

“On the other hand, I look at some of the leagues around the world, not just in football, but in other sports, and how they do video refereeing, and they have the bunker, and they have cameras running around 360 degrees, and it’s lit like a studio; I’d love do all of that, but that possibly doesn’t quite fit with the initial aspirations.”

He adds: “You want it to be an environment in which [the Scottish FA’s] employees can do the job to the best of their abilities; that ultimately is the key factor in this. It can’t be a substandard environment where the referees cannot be the best they can be. So I think those were aspects of our planning that we had to consider at front and centre, and I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve achieved that. I think that the three organisations – us and the SFL and SPFA – worked extremely well together to create a vision for what this should be for Scottish Football.”

Concludes McGill: “If I had to emphasise anything from this process, I think there’s great power in the collaboration that we’ve enjoyed with the Scottish FA and SPFL. There are key individuals, Crawford Allan, who is the head of referee operations for the Scottish FA, and Calum Beattie who is the chief operating officer for the SPFL, and they’re the linchpins at each of those organisations. I think in terms of getting us to this stage, those are the two key individuals that I’ve worked with, and it has felt like a collaboration, and we have felt very much like a partner rather than a supplier through this process.”


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