Rising to the challenge of the new era of live sports broadcasting
By Liz McParland, commercial director, contribution, Globecast
Hands down, 2020 has been an extremely tough time for the sports market, with the global pandemic being responsible for massive disruption. Back in April, a colleague of mine predicted that we would see the cancellation of up to 47% of sporting events over the course of the year. The final figure remains to be seen, but there is no denying that, sadly, much of that forecast has proven to be accurate. Since the start of the pandemic, sport, along with so many other aspects of our lives, has been put on pause.
What has become patently clear is just how vital live sport is to fans and to viewers the world over. June saw the kick-off of the Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’, the return of top-flight football in England. No two matches were played simultaneously, apart from the last game of the season, thereby enabling fans to enjoy the maximum possible amount of action. This was a real beacon among the feelings of uncertainty and isolation bred by the coronavirus pandemic. Live sport is undoubtedly the kind of content that has the power to engage and unify people around the globe in a truly unique way.
Various live sports have been successfully re-established since the beginning of the crisis, but all under some form of restrictive conditions – whether playing behind closed doors, without fans and always with stringent health and safety measures in place. Only now, in the UK at least, are we just at the very beginning of seeing fans gradually return to the stadiums.
Of course, restrictions extend to the level of onsite production staff, meaning broadcasters, producers and suppliers are now incredibly careful in managing their production procedures and schedules. Being COVID-secure is a number one priority. Events are returning, albeit slowly, and the methods of delivering them are having to adapt at same time. This is where technology plays a crucial role.
The coronavirus crisis has accelerated development in our industry, specifically in the area of remote production and cloud-based solutions. In many ways, the technology has always been there, the pandemic has just hastened its use.
Remote production is the prime example of social distancing at work. Many of us have embraced a move towards remote working to keep our businesses alive and well. The same can be said of remote production, enabling live events to be broadcast safely, in a COVID-secure manner. We’ve seen it applied to top tier events, but its benefits are well within reach of the more niche sports. Add to that the cost savings, fast deployment times and lower carbon footprint, and it becomes an obvious choice.
To illustrate, we recently supported a live event in Paris. Pre-pandemic, the traditional set-up to cover a large international event would be to ship a large amount of kit out to the site, while sending at least three dedicated staff to be based locally. On this occasion, we despatched two people to Paris, alternating between one individual onsite and one fully monitoring the range of services back at the hotel. This arrangement was further supported by an operative back in the London MCR, dedicated to staying across the monitoring feeds while maintaining the ability to dial in and regulate the equipment remotely.
By adjusting and optimising our existing broadcast systems, we maintained the full range of monitoring, switching and control afforded to a traditional production. Fewer onsite personnel immediately improved our COVID-secure status. Due to occupancy level rules in place at our London MCR, we had quickly learnt how to adapt our workflows to operate well, within the tight restrictions. During this time, our engineering staff worked hard to increase their remote working toolkit and honing their overall understanding. It has been a steep learning curve, but we have responded to the challenges presented by the pandemic in such a positive and creative way, and I feel that this will translate into some permanent changes in the way we work.
Creating new traditions
There is a marked difference between having the technological potential available to you and actually putting your trust in that technology. Sports broadcasting is an odd mix of innovative and orthodox. State-of-the-art systems such as 4K and 8K images and Dolby Atmos sound are blended with tried and trusted satellite and fibre delivery. We push boundaries while retaining solid foundations. I think there has been more reticence about remote working approaches because everyone has wanted to play it safe – there’s a familiarity and security about that, which is entirely understandable. When an event is live, people are very risk-averse. But the global pandemic has challenged that status quo because there hasn’t been a choice. All ‘traditional methods’ have to start somewhere, and I’m certain we’ll see remote production join those ranks.
In terms of sports contribution, I don’t think that we will completely revert to the traditional ways of working. There’s definitely real value to having trackside presenters, that is evident, and we do have to protect the feel of a live event from the perspective of key people being there, physically. However, it has been proven now that remote production, and remote working more generally, works very effectively, works to a budget and works on a wider basis.