Sports tech in the game

  • With Adrian Pennington

Sports tech in the game

In 2024 the rising demand for data-driven interactive storytelling propelled by innovations such as AI will continue to shape sports broadcasting at the same time as sports broadcaster must tackle escalating live game rights costs. Can tech save the game?
By Adrian Pennington...

The growing direct-to-consumer (D2C) trend has opened up the sports broadcast landscape, enabling organisations to connect directly with fans, take control of their broadcast rights, and drive new revenue streams. As competition increases, Edgio is seeing a renewed focus on driving greater efficiency and reducing time to market. Sally Winship-Comollo, Director of Communications says rights holders and sports streamers look to find the most profitable business models while managing shrinking resources. 

While there's more opportunity than ever before for sports organisations to scale their streaming strategies and reach new platforms, it doesn’t always make business sense to build and manage the infrastructure required to deliver a modern live sports streaming tech stack. Complex technology integrations take time and cost a lot of money - in a market where agility is everything, media companies need to focus on time to market and audience strategy. 

Many sports broadcasters are questioning if they should develop their own technology and commit to owning the entire workflow, or whether a managed services approach that reduces complexity, harnesses economies of scale and increases long-term profitability is the better option. Increasingly, they’re opting for the latter. 

Edgio’s pre-integrated partner ecosystem of best-in-breed solutions eliminates the headaches of multiple vendor integrations, de-risking and streamlining operations while saving customers time and money. With Uplynk at the core of Edgio’s managed services offering, sports broadcasters can easily stream the highest quality linear, live, and on-demand video experiences to any global viewer while supporting any monetization strategy and scaling with minimal resources.

In 2024 the rising demand for data-driven storytelling will continue to shape sports broadcasting. Collaborating with leading sports broadcasters to implement innovative data management capabilities within its graphics solutions, Chyron is at the forefront of this movement, says Carol Bettencourt, VP of Marketing. Harnessing unprecedented real-time player, team, and league data, whether from stats providers or local sources, our graphics solutions empower broadcasters of all sizes to elevate viewer engagement.

AI also will be central to the industry’s ongoing transformation in 2024. Chyron has leveraged AI to enhance operational efficiency, particularly in our Virtual Placement tool for incorporating virtual graphics into live broadcasts, where AI streamlines calibration processes, ensuring quick integration of elements such as down and distance lines in American football. In our PAINT telestration and sports analysis tool, AI recognises key events, generating instant replay clips to reduce clicks and save operators valuable seconds in adding key elements to their productions.

Acknowledging ongoing AI regulations globally, we advocate for a balance between innovation and responsible use of AI. In our ongoing development of Chyron products and solutions, we envision AI as a driver of greater efficiency in production - a tool that complements the expertise and skill of operators, supporting them in telling stories that matter and resonate with viewers.

Of course, the role of cloud will expand in 2024, not only supporting critical remote production workflows but also providing scalable compute power for rendering the increasingly sophisticated virtual graphics and scenes being adopted by broadcasters for major sports competitions.

The consumer expectation for more and more choice gives M&E organisations a real challenge. One issue, presented by Appear CTO, Andy Rayner is that because transporting long-tail video has previously had a similar cost-base to that of contributing high-value content, the economics are stacked against high-quality coverage of niche sports events. 

The emergence of new technologies such as SRT now enables media and entertainment companies to use the public internet to contribute live high-quality content, revolutionising efficiency, ROI, and flexibility. This combined with cost-savings from utilising software cloud-based production and hybrid PTZ/operated cameras enables the high-quality coverage of lower-tier sports events that would previously not been cost-viable. In addition, the emergence and maturation of network technologies such as 5G and low earth orbiting satellites are transitioning from mere proof of concept to becoming integral components of mainstream operations, heralding new levels of connectivity, speed, and flexibility.

The convergence of these developments signals a seismic shift in the sports video contribution landscape, enabling sports broadcasters to meet the consumer choice challenge, bringing even the most niche sporting events and those taking place away from stadiums with high-quality fibre connectivity to a global audience at high-quality.

The other mega trend affecting the video industry is of course sustainability. In 2024 and beyond we will see an ever-increasing focus on more sustainable infrastructure, driven by more and more customers mandating specific sustainable attributes. This is a challenge that Appear and many of its customers have been taking seriously for several years. The real key to making our solutions as green as possible is our elegant engineering that bakes-in sustainability right from the original R&D and product concept. We expect to see the industry increasingly realise that elegant engineering is efficient engineering, and that it needs to be at the heart of everything we do as an industry if we are going to meet our sustainability goals.

With rights valuations still soaring, the video playbook has changed, shifting gears beyond subscriptions and traditional ads. Enter the era of interactive content, in which unlocking revenues means more than just airing games.

Wolfgang Huber of Lawo highlights the extent to which vendors are able to support the industry in the face of a rapidly changing workflow and budget considerations. The widespread adoption of IP-based production is driven by the industry's need for flexibility regarding distributed and remote production scenarios. 

Lawo has masterminded and supported forays in this direction for almost ten years and contributed to the mainstream acceptance of SMPTE ST2110-based infrastructures. The combination of software-defined hardware with processing apps running on standard servers will make it easier for broadcasters and content producers to respond to changing requirements. With its HOME Apps, Lawo furthermore recognises the importance of being open to other transport (NDI and SRT) and compression (JPEG XS, H.26x and more) protocols.

Thanks to the support of WAN connections, some equipment no longer needs to travel, which contributes to more efficient resource utilization and a substantial reduction in carbon emissions and travel times. Lawo's focus on user experience and a clear vision to address the pain points broadcasters are facing aligns perfectly with this trend: operators expect fast, agile tools, instant scalability, and centralized control.

Lawo’s HOME management platform plays a central role in connecting, managing, and securing all aspects of live production environments. HOME is cloud-native and able to run anywhere, from private campuses to public clouds, transforming diverse setups into a powerful, agile network securely and swiftly. It simplifies device discovery and network admission with a single button press.

Additionally, Lawo’s HOME Apps allow users to use containerized, generic-server-based processing apps, which can be licensed via highly elastic plans and no longer require bespoke hardware. The HOME-native .edge Hyper-Density SDI/IP Conversion & Routing Platform complements this elastic offering with a flexibly licensable number of inputs and outputs close to the sources and destinations sources as well as with conveniently licensable functions that help operators to effectively manage signals, bandwidth and many others aspects.

Ross Video says the role of graphics continues to take center stage. Kevin Cottam, VP, Sports & Live Events, points to XPression as a key tool in the hands of sports broadcasters, offering real-time, data-driven capabilities that redefine how narratives unfold. PIERO, he says, is the ultimate broadcaster's companion, enhancing graphical analysis to weave a world-class narrative that resonates with fans.

The rise of augmented reality, virtual studios, and XR highlights the pivotal role that storytelling plays too. Our Lucid and Voyager solutions, powered by Unreal Engine, captivate audiences with stunning effects that elevate fan experiences. Additionally, our studio robotics, remote camera systems, and spidercam, provide unique perspectives that draw fans deeper into the game. Our most recent acquisition, D3 LED, is the final link in the visual chain, with it we can now provide a true end-to-end solution for sports broadcasters.

Operationally, our hyperconverged solutions combine the routing and processing capabilities of Ultrix with the sophisticated creative capabilities of our production switchers, so sports broadcasters can streamline workflows, reduce control room footprint, and save on power and cooling costs.

But above all in the years to come, it's not just about what broadcasters show; it's about telling the stories which captivate audiences worldwide.

Jon Raidel, Global Center of Excellence Lead, Cloud & Live Production, Vizrt observes, that younger demographics are not consuming sports in the traditional way that prior generations have. The demand for sports broadcasters to provide alternate feeds of content is growing rapidly as Gen Z and millennials become the dominant consumers. The question becomes, how do you produce compelling content that reaches younger audiences but doesn’t break budgets? Cloud production.

Removing on-prem trucks, travel for crew, and producing in the cloud helps broadcasters try new content ideas in a flexible way. Take Sky Germany as an example.

By producing an influencer pundit style TikTok feed, in native 9:16 from Viz Vectar (TriCaster Vectar), they saw a significant uptick in viewership numbers and social engagement. 

Moving away from traditional production truck workflows requires a change in mindset but can have significant benefits. Reducing at-venue footprints, using smaller OB vans transporting cameras, audio, and transmission gear to start, empowers these companies to cover more events. Logistically, reduces overbooking or transporting infrastructure not needed for the size of the event. Migrating the control room workflow into the cloud also helps reduce costs.

With budget models changing from CapEX to OpEX, being charged for what you use and when you use it becomes a direction and mindset that yields cost savings. The European League of Football produced 68 live games with this model, saving around €10,000 per game. This included paying for cloud infrastructure only when in use, reducing on-prem infrastructure, and reduction of travel costs for production crew. 

The sports media landscape has seen a transformative shift due to escalating live game rights costs, evolving viewing habits, and consumers favouring streaming over cable services. These trends have particularly hit the USA’s regional sports networks (RSNs) which has in turn compelled leagues and teams to adapt and innovate to replace RSN revenues and increase fan engagement. Rick Allen, CEO of ViewLift says it’s important to note that while many RSNs are financially strained, not all face the same challenges.

Less than a year ago, I still heard doubts regarding the necessity of a sports team or league launching direct-to-consumer (DTC) solutions such as those designed and built by ViewLift. Today, such debates are over, as teams and leagues globally embrace the model of leveraging linear TV for maximum reach while launching over-the-top (OTT) DTC services to super-serve dedicated fans. Scripps Sports has enabled the Stanley Cup champions, the Vegas Golden Knights (VGK), to achieve reach through linear TV, while super-serving VGK fans via a ViewLift-powered OTT platform that distributes content to Connected TVs, mobile, tablets, and the web. Impressively, the VGK KnightTime+ surpassed its full-season sign-up targets within two weeks of launch and shortly after achieved three times the entire season's forecast. 

Other trends we are seeing, all of which are enabled and enhanced by DTC solutions we are developing, include the growing brand strength of superstar athletes, GenZ’s desire to interact with a sport rather than passively spectate, and the growing globalization of sports viewership - all trends which I believe will accelerate in 2024.

Igor Vitiorets, CTO at slomo.tv focuses on content - the very basis of sports broadcasting. Currently, the delivery of any-quality content to users anywhere in the world is not an acute issue. The question is how to offer a greater choice of content in the best quality.

For a long time now, video production and sports broadcasts have been moving to 4K. The 4K support has been implemented in all modern user devices but content production in 4K has not become global. We have to admit that only large, ‘expensive’ events and sport competitions are covered in 4K, and there’s a significant shortage of high-quality content in 4K of non-Tier 1 events. For example, viewers want to watch all the matches of their national championships, but they are not available to them in 4K.

The reason for this lies in cost. 4K broadcasts require components of 4K video production from major high-end companies that are unaffordable for entry-level and mid-level companies. Until recently the mass transition to 4K was difficult.

The situation changed with the advent of Blackmagic Design's high-quality, low-cost and feature-rich 4K video production components. It made OB vans or flight cases for 4-16 cameras based on BMD equipment economically accessible to virtually any broadcaster.

Since sports broadcasts are inconceivable without video replays, a 4K replay server is a must-have component of any 4K broadcast.

We have made it easy for these companies to enter the 4K sports broadcasting market by creating the world's most affordable yet compact 4K video replay server Simple R 4K, providing three recording channels, three search channels and two playback channels with transition effect in a single 1U unit.

The Simple R 4K server is tailored to work with BMD 4K equipment. This is a great solution for sports broadcasters of any level that work with UHD signals. It helps to solve one of the most important problems of pay TV/IP TV broadcast companies - the lack of 4K content.

Ease Live (an Evertz company) is already working with companies rolling out contextual ads in early 2024, explains Kjetil Horneland, CEO. It is doing so alongside rich interactivity it supplies through graphical overlays to sports fans on connected TV, mobile and tablet for many leading sports teams, leagues and broadcasters. For the Regional Sports Networks in the US, battling reduction in cable subscriptions, this shift is crucial. 

Leagues and teams aren't staying on the sidelines either when it comes to finding new revenue streams. They're eyeing DTC Season Pass income, as well as merchandise and gaming, all enabled by interactivity. While operators are sprinting to launch interactive features, leagues are redefining rights, making interactivity a separate rights category. Broadcasters are upping their game too, demanding greater functionality from interactive experts like us.

The latest play is to monetize key game moments through ads and sponsorships. Teams are diving into innovation, offering on-demand interactive features and data. Post-game, the focus shifts to marketing highlights - especially on mobile, where younger fans dwell.

But let’s not forget TV - it's still MVP for sports monetization, with our stats showing that TV viewers stick around five times longer than mobile users. 

In this game of sports media, interactivity isn't just an option - it's the winning goal for revenue and engagement.

Fast and remote production is on the mind of producers and broadcasters says Stephen Tallamy, CTO at EditShare. While complete remote production - just the cameras and microphones at the venue - is still challenging for the largest games, a hybrid workflow offers significant operational benefits.

Having post production facilities at a central location is not just for broadcast convenience. Increasingly, sports federations are investing in centralised video referee suites. Given that the pace of the game depends upon a fast response from the video officials, this calls for very slick workflows.

In all cases, having centralised post and viewing means two essential components in the video streams. First, there must be a way of tracking content which is stored on servers in multiple sites (including the cloud), so authorized users can find what they are looking for, and see it from whichever storage node is most convenient.

Second, there has to be a way of accelerating file transfers between locations. Dependent upon the bandwidth available, the architecture may need to send proxies first, back-filling with full resolution content, and probably using machine learning to know which material needs to be transferred as a priority.

EditShare Multisite provides a single point of knowledge of all material in all silos, and can also provide advanced assistance such as automatically creating bin structures for each user. SwiftSync provides file acceleration and transfer management intelligence. Together, they make multi-site remote production for live events practical and seamless.

Innovation in viewer engagement and monetization are two of the major trends for sports organisations and media companies covering live sporting events in 2024  - particularly as rights valuations continue to rise.  

“A prime example of these trends is Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket, worth $15.1 million per match  - only just behind the National Football League’s $17m per game  - making it essential rightsholders find ways to get the most from their investments,” says Venu Iyengar, COO, Digital for Planetcast Media Services. 

The cost of the streaming rights for IPL exceeded those of the traditional broadcast coverage for the first time in 2023.

Moving forward, streaming rightsholders covering IPL and other sports - and indeed sports broadcasters - will continue to look for innovations that heighten viewer engagement, a key driver for generating revenue growth. In 2024, features like interactivity around streaming content and advertising will continue to be deployed to increase engagement. 

Having provided the media distribution backbone for most of the IPL’s 16-year history in addition to media services for the recent Cricket World Cup, Planetcast has and will continue to work with rightsholders of all types to pioneer innovations that enhance viewer experiences and boost content monetization. These include everything from enabling AI-based editing with player facial recognition and near-instantaneous video highlights to supporting real-time upstream ad insertion and multiple language commentary tracks.