Under the hood: Sportcast on bringing the production of the 2021-22 German Bundesliga to life
Sportcast, host broadcaster for the German Football League (Deutsche Fußball Liga – DFL), produces, refines, distributes and archives all of the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2’s video material. It is tasked with responsibility for DFL’s media value chain, from signal production in the stadium through to global distribution, and at the start of this new 2021-22 season, it is dealing with evolutions, enhancements and a ton of innovations.
The world feed of all 617 DFL matches produced by Sportcast is used by national and international broadcasting rights holders as a live feed or for highlights reporting. Sportcast is in charge of the entire infrastructure for the matchday-related implementation and distribution of the DFL’s international product portfolio (IPP).
Says Tim Achberger, Sportcast’s head of innovation and technology management, speaking to SVG Europe: “We are a 100% subsidiary of the DFL. It’s a really close relationship. I’m responsible for the innovation and technology department and on a daily basis I’m talking to the national and international product management team in Frankfurt, because we are continuously evaluating in which way do we need to adapt, and what are the new demands from customers. It’s really an ongoing procedure between both parties, them as they officially give us the [plan for] the way we shall produce, [and for us] where we need to say in which way [ideas are] able to be realised, or in which way there are limits, because as always the guys have a lot of ideas and it’s not always possible to realise these features.”
“We do have more and more OTT platforms that just have a different demand. They don’t want to have the classical satellite downlink; they want a feed in the stream format that they can use directly in their ecosystem”
Being the daughter company of the league means Sportcast has unprecedented access to whatever it needs, says Achberger. “I think our biggest advantage is, because we are so close to the league and we have all these competencies, that we are able to realise many live tests during the regular season to test and to adapt technical concepts and products; and that’s, I think, the advantage. It’s fruitful discussion, not always positive, but fruitful! Therefore we are able to do the amount and kind of stuff that we’re doing,” continues Achberger.
For this new season, the DFL has made a plethora of enhancements to its broadcasts, from pitchside to the viewers’ screens. Many of these enhancements were showcased and launched publicly at the Supercup that took place on 17 August, after being developed last year.
Says Achberger: “We really made a lot of effort for the Supercup to bring up a lot of innovations and a lot of product ideas we had in mind to test during this event.”
However, making everything work smoothly between the DFL and its rights holding broadcasters comes down to a lot more than showcasing new technologies, adds Achberger: “As we are the co-ordinating body for the league and [we work with] a lot of freelancers and different providers, it’s very important that we define the guidelines for all processes and that we check with the help of our quality management portal [to see] that everyone has understood the demand as well as [the guidelines] in the right way; what are their roles and in which way they need to adapt processes. If we see during the first match days that something doesn’t work out as we might suggest that it should, we then [need to make it work].”
“I think our day-to-day challenge is to set up these core processes, to [understand] in which way we have new demands from our national broadcasters, from the international broadcasters, or from our core customer, the DFL, and also to see that these guidelines stay the same and that we are assured that if there are any changes, they will be adopted by all parties,” says Achberger.
Evolving customer demands
One of those core processes that has changed recently is the DFL Media Hub, the world’s largest digital football video database and a central source for DFL media products from the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 clubs, which has evolved from an archive service to a lot more.
Achberger explains: “The demand for getting pictures, streams and clips, as soon as possible or near-live, brings us new challenges for our Media Hub. Up to last year, we mainly were working on for the archive aspect and offering clips for all editorial aspects, mainly in the post production area. But now we see that there are more and more demands for near-live feeds for near-live clips, and therefore we’re getting more and more changes in our DFL Media Hub as well. That’s why we now call it Media Hub and not an archive anymore, because we are more and more connected to a lot of parties with near-live content.”
This evolution of Media Hub is driven by customer demand. Over the past two years, Sportcast alongside the DFL has noticed a change in demands from its rights holders, who are evolving out from linear TV onto other over the top (OTT) platforms, and are also being joined by pureplay OTT providers.
“I think that’s the transformation we are now in; we currently need to provide on the one hand the top-end feed, and on the other hand, smaller solutions for the platforms that are coming up and platforms that are happy with just streaming and don’t need a 4K-however stream”
Achberger explains: “Over the last two years we’ve seen a change in the demand of international licensee partners we have [of the DFL match feeds] over the past two years. On the one hand, there are the traditional broadcasters, but on the other hand, we do have more and more OTT platforms that just have a different demand. They don’t want to have the classical satellite downlink; they want a feed as a stream format that they can use directly in their ecosystem. So more streaming and more clip formats during the live match, or after the match, which we provide over our file delivery platforms for international and national licensee partners.”
He goes on: “Our colleagues from DFL and product management, and our colleagues from our international production, got more and more demand for these kinds of features. And that’s why they then decided, ‘okay, now is the right time to add this kind of delivery or this kind of distribution so that we can ensure that all partners get the right stuff they need’. And that’s why we now added all live matches of the Bundesliga and all live matches of Bundesliga 2 as a stream for all takers.”
Sportcast oversees the global contribution and distribution of all video signals of the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2. Since the Bundesliga fibre network, which has been connecting all Bundesliga venues with the central production facility at the Cologne Broadcasting Centre (CBC) since the beginning of 2015, was put into operation, Bundesliga video signals have been transmitted via fibre, as well as satellite for backup. Now for the new season, the DFL’s IPP includes live graphics and highlight clips as part of all Bundesliga 2 transmissions.
At the beginning of this year, DFL began doing this for Bundesliga transmissions, but demand from broadcasters has led to it adding Bundesliga 2. DFL can now provide an enhanced live signal for all Bundesliga 2 fixtures of the season using AI and streaming technology. Graphical information, such as team line ups, the current score, or overlays playing back scenes such as goals or penalties, as well as statistics shown as Bundesliga Match Facts powered by Amazon Web Services (AWS), are automatically generated and displayed in real time.
Says Achberger: “We just saw the demand for Bundesliga 2 streaming. [Customers asked us], ‘can you provide for us in any way some upgraded or enhanced features for Bundesliga 2?’ Especially because we have partners like ESPN in the US that want to have more content for their platforms, and therefore we worked on this new creation of bringing the core set of graphics directly into the streams, and provide these enhanced feeds directly to our international customers.”
For all transmissions, match signals are encoded by CBC at the central production site in Cologne and made available worldwide as a stream via DFL’s official technology provider, AWS. For the operation of the extensive AWS structure, a portal was developed last year during lockdown that ensures the operating and monitoring of the cloud-based AWS components of currently up to 20 channels. From the 2021-22 season, this portal has been expanded to include live streams of Bundesliga 2, which is being distributed directly from the SNG via AWS with added graphical content.
The workflow behind this service is likewise entirely new; Sportcast streams the Bundesliga 2 base signal into the AWS cloud, where match data collected by DFL subsidiary Sportec Solutions are added as graphics automatically. While in the past media partners had to invest significant effort to create team line ups, player names or graphics of match stats to add to the transmitted signal, these production processes can now be automated and performed centrally in real time by DFL.
Adds Achberger: “At the start of the new Bundesliga 2 season, several international media partners in a total of 47 countries are making use of the offer. Among others, viewers of ESPN in the US and OneFootball in Brazil watch the correspondingly upgraded live stream.”
International licensees can book the individual streams in the same way as the broadcast feeds, ie, using the Customer Service Tool (CST) booking platform operated by Sportcast. A URL allows international licence partners to retrieve the streams at the programme start in the CST.
On Bundesliga 2 matchdays media partners have access to even more content enhancements with the Social Media Matchday Feeds, which were introduced successfully for Bundesliga fixtures during the previous season, and are a regular service for Bundesliga 2 broadcasts as well this season.
Sportcast works with various key Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 rights holders in Germany, including the two key broadcasters Sky Sport and DAZN, plus ZDF, ARD, Sat.1 and Sport1.
Sportcast has a strong relationship with Sky Sport in Germany, Says Achberger: “We are in a really intense relationship with Sky Sport since 2006. We always discuss with them, in which way do they want to adapt or do they have new ideas, and in which way can we realise these ideas into the production of the basic signal. So on the one hand we have a clear production package structure, which we define before the season. According to new ideas from Sky there are small adjustments during the season, but we have a clear structure that gives us the basic idea of our common production plans for the season.
“So with Sandro [Alessandro Reitano, senior vice president of sports production at Sky Sport] and his team we really focus on how we can deliver the best product for Sky, or the best content, so that they are able to produce the features they want. The discussion is on the one hand, the top quality basic signal production we do for the Saturday night pay-TV feed, and on the other hand, all the demands for their other platforms for the Instagram feeds, the TikTok feeds and whatever Sky wants to deliver as new features for their fans as well, and to see in which way can we deliver as a provider for both needs.
“For this season Sky clearly named some different topics which they want to focus on, so beside the basic signal production we produce over our daily operative units, we are talking closely with Sky to see in which way we can deliver new topics, such as the vertical video. That’s a close dialogue so that we can then identify which features we need to provide for them, on which top match.”
Looking at the 2021-22 season, Sportcast enhanced the tactical feed after Sky Sport requested extra features. “The DFL decided together with Sportec Solutions and Sportscast to deliver an enhanced tactical feed. So we have this classical camera with 20 players on it, which is integrated regularly with AWS Match Facts with information about the players, providing cool graphics with additional information. Sky’s quite successful with this product because they have quite a high number of viewers that are interested in just this tactical feed. These are the kinds of services we try to deliver, bringing our competencies together to deliver those additional feeds.”
Achberger continues, referring to Bundesliga rights holders overall: “I think that’s the transformation we are now in; on the one hand we currently need to provide the top basic signal production and, on the other hand, smaller solutions for the other platforms and licensee partners that are coming up, who are happy with just streaming. So that is my biggest demand.”
Camera, lights, action!
From the 2021-22 season, new camera concepts are being used by Sportcast for production of Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2. The 306 Bundesliga matches are being produced using three different camera concepts: 19 cameras are being used as standard, with at least 21 cameras used for top matches.
Also, a new camera concept, Topspiel Plus, is being used for 66 of the 306 matches, for which a total of 26 cameras are set up in the stadium, including various special cameras such as an aerial camera system, drones, corner flag cameras, a high-speed Polecam, plus six high-speed SSL, beauty shots and tunnel cameras. This is being taken up by Sky Sport on its weekly Saturday night match and DAZN for one game per week on either its Friday night or Sunday matches. OB providers TVN and Top Vision support these Topspiel Plus matches for Sportcast.
To enhance the media product, 176 Bundesliga matches per season are also being produced in UHD HDR. Additional special cameras, such as a railcam, will also be used for selected top matches.
Says Achberger: “You can see that we even pimped the camera standard from the last season, where our top standard was about 21 cameras. So we really [increased] this number of productions with the aerial camera system, and we implemented two corner cams, which are regularly in use. We implemented a super slow mo cam behind the goal and we implemented this portable hand camera, sometimes with a cinematic effect and sometimes without, depending on discussions with the broadcasters.
“That’s where we go into the detailed discussions with Sandro and Sky also because their focus is on the Saturday night match because it’s the match where they have a standalone pay-TV presentation, and that’s where they try to integrate new products.
“We’ve now had just the first six match days so we are mainly focusing on bringing everything to a smooth start because we have all 67 matches in UHD HDR as well, to see that everything works out smoothly. And now we are also focusing on the five to 10 big matches with Sky to integrate additional features. So they might want to add a railcam for one of these matches, which we had on the SuperCup, or the steady cam or the hand camera, or we implement some other kind of feature, whatever they want.
“I’m sure they will have some ideas in mind!”
The Bundesliga continues this weekend with Matchday 5.