Talking ‘bout my federation

One of the big changes of the past handful of years in the sports broadcast industry has been the widening of content choice as leagues, federations and other rights holders that would have been considered to have ‘marginal’ appeal in terms of TV audiences have been able to take more advantage of direct routes to their viewers. Helping them along the way have been companies like SatLink Communications.

Mylan Tanzer is SatLink Communications’ director of sports services, and as such is having quite a busy year of things. Not only was there the small matter of the Olympics and a notable upsurge in working directly with broadcasters (especially in Africa, thanks to new capacity on the AMOS-5 satellite), but there is also increasing business directly with rights holders to consider.

A recent deal with the International Judo Federation (IJF) is a good example, the Federation selecting SatLink as its global content distribution partner for all of the competitions under its jurisdiction. That includes the World Masters, Grand Slam and Team World Championships, all of which will be distributed to Europe, Asia and Americas via the Eutelsat, AsiaSat and Intelsat satellites, not to mention, of course, being streamed over the internet. The deal lasts through 2012 and ‘beyond’ (though exactly how far, no one is commenting on).

“One or two years ago major sports federations that don’t have a large television footprint, such as the International Equestrian Federation or the International Fencing Federation, say, weren’t thinking about live television apart from one major event every few years. Basically all they cared about was having a successful Olympics because they weren’t going to get better coverage than that. Now you find that all those federations, not to mention leagues and other rights holders, are finding it lucrative to have live transmissions and be on satellite to get global coverage. That has gone hand in hand with broadcasters’ demands for more live content, which seems to be increasing as time goes on.”

SatLink has provided global OU (Occasional Use) services for several major sporting events, including the FIFA World Cup, the London Olympics and Formula One. According to Tanzer though the model is now moving beyond ad hoc OU deals and into longer term ones.

“A lot of these federations and leagues have relied on the big rights agencies in the past, the IMGs etcetera, but what they’ve started to do in the last few years is take a lot of their operations in-house for various reasons,” he says. “Consequently they realise they have to be responsible for the technical distribution side of things as well, so they look for providers like us. And in looking for the best possible prices providers tie them into a long-term agreement, which gives stability to both sides.”

Of course, long-term agreements nowadays tend to involve some degree of technological change as the industry accelerates rapidly first towards the event horizon labelled 4k and on to the one labelled 8k. It might even have another go at 3D while it’s at it. Companies such as SatLink are going to be at the forefront of making that happen, so how does Tanzer see the future unfolding?

“Ultra-HD? It’s an interesting question, and it could be in the home anywhere from tomorrow to a couple of years down the line,” he says. “If it does take off it will be at the expense of 3D, and my feeling is that it will be sooner rather than later. It’s just a matter of standards agreements and consensus now. The technology is there. We could do it now basically.”

According to Tanzer one of the main hurdles will be in the way that the standards resolve around codecs. The more efficient the codec specified – and most people are backing HEVC – the more financially feasible it will be to provide the bandwidth necessary to carry the signal. There is the chance that 4K could find itself priced out of the market, at least in the short-term.

But for all the technological change to come, he thinks that viewing habits for the sports broadcast will remain the same. Live action, as evidenced by some of the rows over tape delay during the Olympics, will remain the touchstone of the industry.

“In sports there is never going to be a true replacement for the live primetime broadcast of a major event on a big screen in your home, or a bar – whatever,” he says. “In that respect I think that satellites and fibre optic use in sports will always be something of a fall-back for the satellite business – whatever happens it’s always going to be there. Even as IP becomes more reliable, in terms of redundancy and secure lines and robustness satellite wins, there’s too much at stake here. It’s not like a sit-com that if something goes wrong you can just download it again.

“If anybody says they know what’s going to happen by the next Olympics, they’re fantasising to an extent. I know what will stay the same, however, and that’s linear sport consumption for big events.”

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