SportTech Europe: Broadcasters are getting ready for Rugby World Cup 2015

2015 is a big year for rugby. In September, the Rugby World Cup comes to England and promises to be bigger, better and more widely viewed than before. Beyond the World Cup, more rugby than ever is being broadcast, on more channels. At its best, such as on the final day of the 2015 6 Nations, rugby can be extremely exciting, tense, even dramatic — and telling the story of a match involves sophisticated camera and graphics technology plus a keen eye for the game.

On the panel of SVG Europe’s ‘Rugby Special: RBS 6 Nations and Rugby World Cup 2015’ session, moderated by SVGE contributor David Fox were Stuart Coles, Sales Director at Alston Elliot, the company behind all the graphics you see on Six Nations, World Cup, and all European domestic rugby competitions; Matthew Griffiths, Senior Producer/Director at BBC Sport, who was a match day director on the Six Nations;
 and David Shield, Global Director of Engineering & Technology and SVP at IMG Studios, which is providing the IBC, distribution and other services for the Rugby World Cup this autumn in England.

David, to start us off, can you give us a brief sketch of the overall broadcast coverage plan for Rugby World Cup 2015?

Shield: I should stress I’m speaking on behalf of ITV Sport, which is providing the world feed. Rugby World Cup is part of World Rugby. IMG, since the inception of the competition, have been commercial advisors — which essentially means selling the rights and sponsorship around the event. We have gradually become more and more involved in the Host Broadcast production.

As I say, ITV Sport provides the world feed production in the truck at the venues, and IMG Studios provides the IBC at our new premises at Stockley Park and the unilateral services around the venues, i.e. commentary positions, studios etc.

Rugby Special (L/R): Matthew Griffiths, BBC; Stuart Coles, Alston Elliot; and David Shield, IMG Studios

Rugby Special (L/R): Matthew Griffiths, BBC; Stuart Coles, Alston Elliot; and David Shield, IMG Studios

There are 13 venues dotted around the country – including one in Wales, strangely, as this is an English World Cup – but the Millennium Stadium was too good a chance to miss. Eight of those are actually football grounds, which brings challenges as they are generally the wrong shape for rugby. Only four are actually recognised rugby grounds – Twickenham, Millennium Stadium, Sandy Park [Exeter] and Kingsholm [Gloucester].

The match camera-plans are seeded according to which teams are playing: if two seeds are playing each other it’s A or A-Plus coverage; we have B-grade coverage which is slightly reduced where one seed is playing a non-seed; and C is two non-seeds.

I don’t think you’ll see a lot that’s new in terms of specialty cameras; maybe corner-flag cameras might be a new one. By and large I should think it’s very similar to what Matt has used at Twickenham on the 6 Nations. We’ve got dressing room cameras, which is certainly a first in Rugby World Cup terms — obviously no sound in there! We’ll have Ref Cam now on all matches – I even heard of one licensee wanting to stream that on their web site. I think you might be quite sick if you watched Ref Cam for 80 minutes!

ITV has contracted SIS Live to do all the contribution circuits, both for the world feed back from the venues to the IBC and some unilateral circuits for broadcasters, coming in to us at Stockley Park.

In graphics, ITV has done the design, the overall look and feel. The data gathering is from Opta, a well-established team now along with Alston Elliott providing the graphics output.

Sound Credit is providing commentary positions and comm cams. Hawkeye is providing what I call the multi-angle replay system as we know it in Premier League Football – they are providing assistance to the TMO in making decisions.

Matt, BBC Sport was Host Broadcaster for the 6 Nations. How did you go about covering the matches across the tournament?

Griffiths: The 6 Nations it is incredibly important to the BBC, it’s one of our most watched events. We put a lot of resource into it. We had three different match-day set ups basically.

Back in the old days, we used to Host Broadcast all the games. Now we only Host Broadcast the Home Unions, so that’s Twickenham, Millennium Stadium and Murrayfield – which was eight games.

There’s a two-truck set-up for the Match One game of the weekend, which is one truck specifically for the match and one truck with a separate director for the linking aspects. For Match Two there’s one truck with one director; and the third one is the add-on, where we’re just taking the Host Feed and adding our presentation to it.

Graphics of course is key in rugby coverage as it’s a complex game with a lot of rules involved. Stuart, what makes rugby different from all the other sports that you’re doing?

Coles: I think really you need the guys involved to be rugby experts. It is a complex game and it’s very graphics-heavy compared to other sports. In football if you get a clock in on the game and keep the score updated people are generally happy. In rugby you need to be telling the story of the game.

You’ve got a lot of responsibility on your shoulders because the director is doing a number of other things and doesn’t necessarily have the time to be calling for graphics all the time. For instance if [England captain] Chris Robshaw is having an amazing game you want to tell the viewers why, and get the data up there on-screen.

Stuart Coles: "You really need the guys involved to be rugby experts?

Stuart Coles: “You really need the guys involved to be rugby experts”

Data is a key part. David has already mentioned Opta, with whom we’ve had a long-standing partnership. Most of the rugby we do in the UK – and we do a lot, close to 200 games this year – is with Opta, and also our guys write our own software in-house to make that data understandable, enabling the guy in the truck quick access. They need, within one or two keystrokes, to quickly call that graphic up and be in a position to offer it to the director. A key thing is people who know the sport and have a passion for it.

How do you deal with all that data during the match? Is there automation involved, or is it all just fed straight into Viz machines? Is there someone doing it manually?

Coles: We’ve written handler software which interacts with Opta or whichever stats supplier we’re using, to pull that data in. We also produce a video feed which we call a fruit machine, where the key stats for teams and players are displayed in a one-page, easy to digest snapshot.

Our operators use that and we’ve also got more detailed breakdown of stats as well. It’s all about the guys following what the commentators are talking about – and sometimes even keying through to the commentators and saying, ‘Robshaw is having an amazing game, that’s his twentieth tackle in the first period’ or whatever it might be.

The key is that the software is flexible enough that you can quickly get access to that data. As I say it must be two or three keystrokes; you can’t be piling through reams of data when you don’t really know which way the commentator is going to go. You need to react quickly.

And we often try to set them up. If Matt’s running a replay of a great piece of play, we might say we’ve got some good stats that reinforce what the director has chosen or what the commentator is saying. The other thing is making the graphics small enough that they’re readable but without Matt worrying about which shot he’s going to put those graphics over – that’s a key thing as well. It’s all about speed, and the ease of being able to select the data you need.

You dealt with graphics in different languages for the 6 Nations Stuart. What’s the plan for the Rugby World Cup in terms of multi-language graphics?

Coles: The Rugby World Cup is different from a multi-language perspective, in so far as they’ve got local and slaved remote productions. It’s a true remote production in the sense that all the multi-language feeds are going to be triggered at the IBC – those machines will live at the IBC. This allows greater efficiency as they can be used for multiple games throughout the day.

There’s a massive network that BT has built, which is essentially a WAN around all the venues. When our match operator at each ground triggers a graphic it will automatically trigger not only a backup feed in English language back at the IBC but it will also trigger multi-language feeds in whatever country has come to the party and selects those feeds.

We do French, Italian and Welsh for the 6 Nations, and other languages (such as Hindi) for other sports. It can be done. It’s just a matter of having those translations and the clever software behind it in populating those graphics simultaneously and automatically.

Shield: One of the RWC requirements is for us to monitor the multi-language feeds as they leave, which is why we do that operation at the IBC. It gives us another chance to have a resilient feed; as well as a main and a backup, and a backup backup, we have the clean feed and if necessary we can move one of the Vizes onto the clean feed and recreate the English language world feed at the IBC. It’s another level of backup, which is quite useful.

A unique aspect of rugby coverage is the Television Match Official (TMO). For the World Cup, will the choice of replays on major plays be controlled by the TMO or by the match-day director?

Shield: Speaking for ITV if I may, I know they’re pretty keen to retain control of the whole dance around the TMO. There has always been this slight suspicion, from some of the rugby guys, that there is undue influence placed upon TMOs by EVS ops and even commentary. In an ideal world they would like to put the TMO in a darkened room with a couple of monitors.

David Shield: "I would still go for Spider Cam every time"

David Shield: “I would still go for Spider Cam every time”

Hawkeye have some clever stuff which is an adaptation of something they’ve been doing for us on Premier League Football, taking ISO feeds of as many cameras as you like and making them available in an interface where you can put, I think, up to 32 cameras on one screen. That would be impossible to look at … but maybe four relevant replay cameras on screen, ganged together, so you can watch them through.

The one we really think is a money shot is that you can do the ‘was the foot in touch before the ball was grounded?’ on a touchscreen which allows you to reframe those shots appropriately and do a split screen and roll them together.

So we’ll use Hawkeye as a replay in its own right, and it will also be the place where the TMO sits – away from some of those other influences. How Rugby World Cup have been persuaded it is good for them is actually not just that but all the ancillary uses like the citing commissioners who are based at the IBC and basically looking at incidents that could end up in a citing.

In the old days they would take a time code, call the truck at the end of the game and we would play down all the angles for those time codes and compile a little tape for them. Now they can do that remotely, during the game, so they’re already compiling potential citing incidents at the IBC.

Likewise at the venue the medical guys are now looking for possible concussions. If they see an incident where there could be a concussion they can look at all the angles, and they may make a recommendation that a player needs to come off the pitch, based upon that evidence.

The coaches boxes can have access to all those angles – though increasingly, they’re already taking four or five angles and recording them themselves. You’d be amazed at the technology going on there now – and they could have access to Hawkeye.

It’s a whole range of things, partially enabled by the tournament data network that Rugby World Cup got BT to install, which Stuart has mentioned. The Hawkeye system can run across that and you can view any of these angles at any venue. We’re putting talkback on that network and obviously the graphics are going on it, so that has become a very key component of the tournament.

Griffiths: On the 6 Nations, our experience so far is that the TMO has always been in the truck with us, sat in the corner. We try not to influence him. But the fact is you’re still directing a game, you’re still involved in that flow and you’ve got to make it make sense for the people at home. So whilst I can see the value of having a TMO in a darkened room by himself with his own replays, that could take an interminable amount of time.

At least if he’s in the truck with you, you can drive that a little bit which is important. It’s finding the balance – you kill the moment if someone’s scored a great try and everyone knows it’s a try but you’ve got the opposition saying wasn’t there a knock-on in that passage of play? I’m not blaming anyone, but some TMOs don’t actually know some of the laws…

With all the cameras now on offer to the match-day director, is there a danger of technology getting in the way of game coverage?

Griffiths: I think from our point of view on the 6 Nations, which gets such massive figures: on the final day we had 9.6 million viewers; across the whole tournament 41% of the population was watching; and we had 3.6 million separate views on our web site. The numbers are incredible.

So for us, the most important thing is always to make it interesting and entertaining for the casual viewer, without alienating the rugby fan. We’re always trying to tell stories. All the cameras we have …we had Ref Cam this year, which I think can be quite effective if you don’t over-use it. We had Spider Cam at Twickenham for all three games there, which gave us great shots. Polecam I’m not such a big fan of — I know the clubs like it but it doesn’t really do a lot for me in terms of coverage. And with the TMO as well; you need as many good angles as you can get.

It’s that magic word ‘balance’, striking the balance between showing everybody at home the story of the match whilst utilising the best technology available to us.

Shield: I would still go for Spider Cam every time. That’s the one we pushed ITV quite hard on to extend to a number of venues and a number of games – because once you’ve got it rigged it gets relatively cheaper. Relatively! It is expensive to put into a venue where it’s never been, as you’ve got to do metal work to get fixing points and so on. But I think you get the most bang for your buck out of Spider Cam.

It’s diminishing returns. When you get to camera 33, which is not going to make it to air… well maybe in a replay. There’s quite a difficult equation in terms of what is worthwhile.

But certainly for Rugby World Cup, we’ve got some very high standards to try and match up to in SportTech camera lensterms of BT Sport, Sky and the BBC’s existing coverage. We need to be at least as good; and the problem you have in any Host Broadcast situation is you’ve got to give the plain vanilla coverage where you have to be fair to both sides. ITV will do as much as they can in their own adaption, so there will be an ITV domestic truck doing their own thing taking the world feed as its basis. But you’re somewhat limited in what you can do in a world feed, more so than the BBC would be doing on its own coverage at Twickenham.

In terms of attracting a worldwide audience, the desire is to set the production values as high as they can possibly be. That can make sensible use of all those angles, rather than replays for replays sake. We’ll use them where they help to tell the story.

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