Live from Liverpool: Sky Sports lets the action (and the talent) do the talking as Netball World Cup host broadcaster

As the Vitality Netball World Cup (VNWC) reaches the play-offs stage, SVG Europe meets the Sky Sports production team that is delivering the world feed, and its own unilateral coverage, at a tournament that could have a massive impact on the sport in general. 

The production budget may not be huge, but the impact and reach could be. That is one way of summing up the TV and online coverage of the VNWC which is taking place in Liverpool until Sunday (21 July).

Sky Sports is the host broadcaster for the tournament, providing the world feeds as well as its own, slightly more England-centric, coverage for UK viewers on the pop-up Sky Sports Netball channel.

There are nine rights holders in total, all taking the world feed, with the BBC also showing matches in the UK. All the matches are streamed live on Sky Sports’ YouTube channel too.

The VNWC does not have the budget of the football or cricket world cups. You won’t find swathes of toys or gizmos in Liverpool this week, for example.

What you will find is a carefully and cleverly used budget that delivers the high production values, and expert analysis, that is synonymous with Sky’s output; a vast reach that could massively benefit the sport; and a production, technical and editorial team that is bursting with energy and enthusiasm.

Moving the goalposts

The tournament is played in double quick time, over 10 days, in a single venue, the Liverpool Arena in the city’s docklands area.

To make this possible, two courts were in play at the beginning of the tournament, with matches taking place simultaneously, albeit with staggered start times.

For this, the playing surface was divided in half with a camera tower, commentators, judges, referees and officials in the area between the two courts.

Televideo, the OB facilities company, provided Sky Sports with two trucks. One for each court, each producing a dedicated world feed. The truck for Court 1 also serviced Sky Sports’ unilateral output.

“Obviously, we may not have quite the resources of the Premier League [football], but we do absolutely make sure that all our resources go in exactly the best place so that [viewers] get the best out of them.”

This set-up was in place for the tournament’s first preliminary stage (12-15 July) and the beginning of the second preliminary stage. But from Day 5 of the tournament, and all the way to the final, it’s been reduced down to one show court. This will host the rest of the second preliminary stage, the playoffs, placing matches and the Gold and Bronze medal matches.

The mid-tournament changeover required the installation of a brand-new playing surface, turning the court 90-degrees, and an overnight de-rig and rig of the OB cabling.

The camera positions were taken out too and put back in again, this time court-side rather than between the two courts.

The changeover also saw Sky Sports go down to one truck from two. BBC Sport then moved into the second truck for its unilateral coverage. At the same time, the commentary positions moved from between the courts to a gantry position.

Specifying technology

The camera configuration, and the coverage in general, for the VNWC is more comprehensive than what is found on the Netball Superleague, also broadcast by Sky Sports.

Televideo is supplying Sony HDC-2500 cameras for the tournament, each one fitted with a Canon lens, the longest of which is an 86:1. Remotely operated Q-Ball camera heads are providing overhead views.

An RF camera is also part of the armoury. This is being used both handheld and with a Steadicam, depending on requirements.

Court coverage will increase for the semi-finals and final when a reverse camera with a big lens is added. This will be used as a hi-motion camera.

The use of data at the VNWC also differs from Sky Sports’ standard netball coverage.

For the Netball Superleague, stats are generated manually by Sky. At the VNWC, Champion Stats has been brought in to provide the data. The statistics are uploaded to the cloud and made accessible via a web portal.

The Sky team pulls the data from a webpage and feeds it into a bespoke stats application that then allows for graphics creation and telestration.

The Champion Stats data is being made available not just to Sky but to all rights holders. The same data is being used for graphics on the in-venue screens too.

A bespoke match clock has also been created for the tournament.

Placed courtside and operated by the umpires, data is sent via cable to the compound beneath the arena.

That clock data then goes to an application that reads it and distributes it to the Vizrt graphics engines and to the screens in the arena.

The integration work for this has been done by Sky with Champion Data providing the clock feed itself.

Producing the goods

Team Sky Netball: (L to R) Leanne MccLernon, multi sports producer; Jo Osborne, senior producer for multi sports; senior director Will Sawrey-Cooksen; Kate Walkey, production manager

While there may not be huge swathes of production enhancement toys on the VNWC, the overall production values are high, as Jo Osborne, senior producer for multi sports at Sky Sports told SVG Europe.

“For netball, and for all our women’s sports,” she says. “We’re really keen to provide the same level of analysis and the same level of technology and the same care and attention that we would do for any other any of our other sports.

“Obviously, we may not have quite the resources of the Premier League [football], but we do absolutely make sure that all our resources go in exactly the best place so that [viewers] get the best out of them. We try and use what we’ve got [available] to make sure that everything that we do can be seen on screen and enjoyed by [viewers] across all our platforms.

The multi-platform coverage is a crucial part of this, she adds. “We are making sure that as many people as possible can see netball because it is a sport that needs as much reach as it can get.”

Telling stories

Storytelling is key to any televised sport but with fast-moving quarters of 15 minutes each, when the action rarely pauses for breath, there isn’t much time for on-screen analysis or replays in netball.
As such, less is sometimes more.

“It’s a quick sport so you don’t have a lot of time for replays,” says senior director Will Sawrey-Cooksen, who is leading the team of directors calling the shots in Liverpool.

“I do a lot of cricket where you have lots of dead time and you can fill it with replays. With netball, you really have to pick your moments and because you get so few, they need to count. And they need to be totally relevant to what’s going on in the game.

“The game moves on incredibly quickly so you can quite regularly have a replay ready to go out that within about 30 seconds actually becomes irrelevant. So, you just have to keep moving on.”

The speed of the sporting action means there is a lot of onus on the commentary team and on the editorial during the quarter and half-time breaks.

“The game moves on incredibly quickly so you can quite regularly have a replay ready to go out that within about 30 seconds actually becomes irrelevant. So, you just have to keep moving on.”

“We make sure that we tell the story through commentary during the game,” adds Osborne.

“We replay where we can but we’re very aware that the action is the most important [aspect]. And that’s the thing. You’re telling the story of the sport, but the sport is telling its own story. You don’t have to insert yourself into it.

“And then, we make sure in the half-time and breaks that we’ve got all the tools that we need including the touchscreen analysis [Sky Pad] and the netballing brain of [former England international] Tamsin Greenway and others to make sure that we can tell people what we’ve picked out from the game and get them involved.

“The way that Tamsin analyses the game for me it’s pretty much the best in the world.”

Osborne also points out that some of the narrative of the match is offered up on the second screen.

“We have a really good storytelling process on social media,” she adds. “This means we can pick out events from the game to make sure any viewers who are watching us [on a second screen] or any non-customers who are following the games there can see which way the game is going and benefit from that.”

Sport at scale

Another big editorial consideration is capturing the scale of the tournament.

“This is a bigger event [than the Superleague] so I’m trying to get a lot more colour into it and show that it is a world event,” says Sawrey-Cooksen (pictured, above) who regularly directs domestic league coverage.

“It’s easy because there’s so much going on and the crowds have been great. Some Superleague games, the crowds are quite small so you are focusing on the game. With an event like this you can really show off all the colours. The African teams have been incredible. And when England play in the arena the sound is deafening.

“I’m trying to get across the skill of the players on the court but also the whole energy and excitement around the event as well. This means we tend to shoot things a bit wider in order to get more crowd in the back of a shot.”

With a potential new audience coming to the sport for the first time, there is also an educational element within the coverage – both for the world feed and for Sky Sports viewers.

The use of on-screen rules graphics is one example.

“The umpire mic really helps too,” says Osborne. “But I think if you were a layperson you might ask: what’s a penalty? Why is it called contact? What does that mean? So, we’re trying to put those rules graphics up to really educate people.

“Tamsin and the team choose their analysis very carefully too. They show people what to look out for. It is more about movement. It’s more about partnerships. It’s not about anything too obscure. I think it’s a really good use of the analysis rather than trying to be too clever.”

Fountain of youth

The tournament is attracting a slightly different demographic for Sky too, as Leanne MccLernon, multi sports producer, explains. And it’s not just female-skewed.

“We are certainly attracting a younger audience and it’s something that is quite rare for Sky Sports,” she says.

“We have seen more female audiences and under 25s, and even the sort of 30 to 40 mark as well. From our point of view when you go into the arena you see the crowds are predominantly women and young girls, which is absolutely fantastic. That is reflected in our viewing figures as well. And our breakdown of our viewers. We’re looking to expand that by using different things like Snapchat and Instagram.”

The TV output is reflecting that trend too.

“We are championing some of these individuals, looking at their background stories and making sure we do nice features, finding out what they are all about,” she says.

That female skew is evident in the production team too. As anyone who has ever been in an OB compound at a sporting event will appreciate, it’s often a very male environment.

At the VNWC, while the OB engineering team is predominantly male, the 40 to 50 Sky personnel are split 50-50. Among the team are female camera operators including two female Steadicam ops.

“The number [of women on an OB] has been so low in the past and 50-50 might not sound like a lot but that is a huge increase.”

“In the truck, it’s very female orientated,” says MccLernon with some pride.

“The numbers [of women on an OB] have been so low in the past and 50-50 might not sound like a lot but that is a huge increase.

‘We’ve got a good balance,” she continues. “But we’ve got predominantly more women than we’ve ever had in a production team which is exciting. Obviously, it’s because women play netball. So, they’re more knowledgeable in general about the sport. The men that we have got involved have had a real interest in it, though, and they’ve been inspired I think by the atmosphere. It has created a different vibe almost because there’s a lot of people that are very passionate about the sport.”

With just the semi-finals and final to come this weekend, the home team are in with a shot of winning the World Cup. Is England being successful important? It’s not essential but it will certainly help.

“In every sport I’ve ever worked in, England doing well is important,” says Osborne. “It’s important to us because we will hopefully get more people who love the sport. And it’s important, if I’m honest, to England Netball that they do well because that’s going to bring more people into the sport at grassroots level. That’s going to make sure that the sport continues in the way that we want it to.

“We all want to grow it,” she concludes. “It’s great that the BBC are on board to increase the reach. All anyone wants to do is make more people love netball and watch netball. So, the great thing about England doing well, is that should make that a whole lot easier.”

The Vitality Netball World Cup 2019 continues until Sunday 21 July. Coverage is available on the Sky Sports Netball channel and the Sky Sports YouTube channel, and on BBC Sport.

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