Live from The Open: All change for Sky Sports as it takes over from the BBC
With the sun on his back, Phil Mickelson shot a dazzling eight under par round to race into a three shot lead over Martin Kaymer and Patrick Reed on Day One of the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon on Thursday. For Sky Sports, this sunny day in West Scotland was its first as the new live UK broadcaster for The Open.
Last year the BBC lost the rights to Sky in a new five-year contract set to begin in 2017. However, the Royal & Ancient was approached by the BBC to discuss an early release from its contract to provide live coverage, meaning that at relatively short notice Sky Sports was offered the opportunity to step in a year early.
So, after 60 years of continuous BBC live coverage, Sky Sports began its tenure with the opening tee-shot by Colin Montgomerie at 6.30am on Thursday. Live coverage runs until 9pm for the first two rounds and 12-hour sessions of coverage over the weekend – plus an extended highlights and analysis show each evening and a special ‘How The Open was won’ look back at all the key moments from the week.
In fact Sky Sports is dedicating an entire channel to the Championship, offering 10 days of programming including all the live coverage and various documentaries and shows exploring the allure of The Open. Featured group coverage is available each day on Sky Sports 4 via the red button, the online Sky Sports Xtra channel and the Open companion on the Sky Sports for iPad app, with two groups per session on Thursday and Friday.
Viewers can also track players’ progress through selected holes for free on Skysports.com and the Sky Sports mobile apps during the first two rounds, with that stream also available throughout the week on the red button.
SVG Europe sat down with Sky Sports Director of Operations Keith Lane and Design Director Jason Landau to talk about how the broadcaster prepared for the giant new challenge, and what innovations it has been able to bring to coverage of the 145th Open Championship.
Keith Lane: “This is the biggest tournament event we’ve done. We’ve put more of ourselves into this one than when we’re on the back of an American event. We’re the bigger player here. This is proving to be slightly more challenging than one might expect!
“But the commitment was always to try to bring something new and fresh to the production, of course in a very controlled way as The Open obviously has a very specific look and feel. It was important to be complementary to what the R&A wanted, but also to take it a little further forward as well.
“We know the expectation of our golf team; we do the Ryder Cup and the majors and know the sort of things they’ll want. But being The Open there would be some extra things and also some opportunities that would come as being the UK broadcast partner.
“We worked very closely with European Tour Productions around what level of enhancement they would bring to coverage – as it was their first time too – with extra cameras around the course and in bunkers. And the R&A’s view was that ‘we have to embellish a really good host feed. How do we bring that along?’
“We always knew we would do Ryder Cup style coverage, and with that would come greater creative elements. When we came to having discussions with [ETP OB partner] CTV it was an easy conversation, as we knew where we were in terms of extra coverage, graphics, Open Zone and the requirements of Sky Sports News. We also have 17 cameras for our unilateral production.
“CTV also had their American broadcast partner swapped as well this year [from ESPN to NBC] and that brought a lot of changes. We have a good collaboration with NBC as we partner with them for golf in the United States.
“CTV is our provider. They’re using Telegenic, who had been our previous provider for the Ryder Cup, so it is a three party relationship. However it got to the point that there were not enough resources within CTV [due to the heavy demands of EURO 2016, Wimbledon and Rio Olympics this summer], so we also spoke to Kevin at Gearhouse and he suggested OB Lite. Thus we decided to use OB Lite for Sky Sports News. Telegenic T19 is our main production truck; T3 is edit and graphics; OB 6 is used for the Open Zone and OB Lite for the Sky Sports News operation.
“With the R&A, ETP, CTV and NBC we felt, ‘we can do good coverage, and we can embellish it to suit our market’. Once the announcement came through that ETP was given the opportunity to do the host, it meant our strong relationship with them through the European Tour and the big events we’ve done could be built on, to have a good constructive conversation and bring our own influence to bear as well. It’s collaborative.
“The introduction of The Open Zone [set at the practice range] has been an interesting win for us, as there are a lot of fans but also the players are there and we can show what they’re doing with analysis via the Pinpoint system. For the first couple of days the preview shows were based out of that area along with the Sky Sports News operation with their own studio.
“This also allowed the rest of the main trucks to set themselves up and get the rest of the production working. Subsequently the team there have been doing fill-ins for the rest of the show, either live or making feature pieces ready to go into the main show.
“The key thing for us was trying to both deliver the coverage and also give a little bit of insight into the course, so the graphical side is really a step forward. There’s been a massive collaboration about how we’ve done that. We’re working with ncam, Perfect Parallel and Vizrt, getting everyone to integrate with each other in the way they share data and make the system work.
“The really important part was the creative desire, the will, to make it happen. One of the challenging things has been around the virtual side, how we do the tracking. When we did the Ryder Cup in Gleneagles  we basically had a data head, which was pretty much a static head. Systems have developed over the years, and working with the ncam system has given us what we wanted. But mocking it up in studios or creative suites is one thing; getting it into this environment with the studio and the lighting and all the aesthetics that that brings, is something different.”
Jason Landau: “For the player walkthroughs, one of our directors has had a room by reception where the players sign in for the tournament [and some of the players were also captured at the BMW PGA tournament at Wentworth in late May]. We’ve done a classic walk forward, and then we’ve done something more natural, where they’re looking at their score card or putting on the cap or gloves, making it feel live.
“We filmed in portrait at 4K, the first time we’ve done that, which means we can get as much out of the frame as possible. Now that we’ve put them into the main studio the way it holds up is fantastic, so the director is able to push the jib in, giving you a really nice look at the faces – whereas before you had to keep it wide because it started going soft, due to lack of resolution.
“Perfect Parallel is a golf games company that we discovered when we started to look at higher level graphics for golf fly-throughs. It’s been a really successful relationship. They’ve kept their gaming side, but we’ve helped them become a broadcast company as well.”
The viewer expectation around graphics is so high now, partially as an infuence from the games business. You almost expect to see Protracer and clever graphics around every shot…
Keith Lane: “The appetite for more is exponential. But we don’t want to make it gimmicky. That’s good to start with as it brings a wow factor. But graphics have got to have some worth and value, and your talent and the professional golfers must buy in with you. It’s got to stand up visually and has to be sustainable. Editorially, we try to create the right opportunities to use those tools without distracting from the golf coverage. An extended programme, as we have here, allows us to do that in the right way.”
Jason Landau: “We have more airtime, but we need to make sure we fill that with great content. Working with the players on the range and the Open Zone, we believe we’ve brought that to life.
“The first thing we did was give touchscreens to the pundits, and that looks great. The next thing was to take the touchscreen to the players, so now when the players finish their round they come to our Sky Cart and do analysis there. We then thought, well if we can put a Sky Cart into post-round analysis, it would be great if we could get use it for players to analyse their shots on the practice range as well.
“From there, the Open Zone developed and we thought, can we have it as our own bay [at the range]? So now we bring the players over and they demonstrate and analyse their shots with one of our coaches in the bay. We’ve got Protracer in there and Trackman, which is the leading provider in data for the players. They trust that kit. So now you can talk about the yardages and numbers and ask the player is this the kind of data you would be expecting? How do you deal with wet weather and wind, how do you shape your shots?
“We work with Virtual Eye for fly-through graphics; Perfect Parallel for our models and the Shot Centre back at Sky; and Pinpoint, who are here providing weather data for us. We’ve got five gauges around the course and that data is being fed into the touchscreen and to our graphics.
“One of the other things we’re doing is Chyron Hego virtual placement yardage markers. You can highlight hazards – the kind of things the caddy would be talking about with the pro. You can’t normally see them because they’re hidden away. So to actually be able to select on it and say ‘this is 171 yards away and there’s a bunker there’ is really helpful.
“We also have the largest studio you will see on a golf course. It’s huge. Bigger than the Ryder Cup. When you go up there, the view really has the wow factor. I took a photo up there today [a sunny day with blue skies] and the picture actually looked virtual. One of the guys thought it was a virtual set. No no, I said, that’s real!”
Keith Lane: “The other thing to bear in mind is connectivity. One of the biggest things for us is sending great big 4K files back to London to be re-rendered in the effects studio and sent back. It’s a lot of data to be sent – and sent back. You can talk about IP an so on, but I’ve always said connectivity is king.
“This is a big event, but it’s a one-off and it’s in the middle of nowhere. It was quite challenging. How many feeds do we need to go out, along with Sports News? What do we need creatively to make it happen, as we’re so remote here?
“It was a case of saying to BT and others, what can you provide and how quickly can you do it? This came around a year earlier than we anticipated [2016 rather than 2017] so we needed to make applications as we’re taking a big chunk of their capacity. And you’ve got to make sure that if you take it you use it – and it has got to deliver for you. All those creative desires hang on a piece of connectivity.”