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COMMENT: What sports broadcasters have learned in an unprecedented 2020

By 5th January 2021 No Comments

Greg Burns, head of business development at Arqiva, reveals what sports broadcasters can take on board going into 2021.

The sports broadcasting industry was granted a unique opportunity to test and trial new ways of working when producing and distributing content this year as it wrestled with the impact of the global pandemic.

It forced providers to reflect and focus on the future of the sector and think creatively about how to revolutionise live production. With limited physical access to sites, venues, broadcast facilities and infrastructure hosting facilities, sports broadcasters’ and media organisations’ plans for remote and software IP-based production have been accelerated. Using cloud-based services for content distribution and production is no longer a question of ‘why?’, ‘if?’ or ‘when?’ – but ‘how?’.

The barriers preventing the full adoption of remote and virtualised production across the industry stem from outdated fears relating to cost and security, as well as technical challenges around latency and reliability. Those who produced content traditionally were reluctant to change – as with all sectors, experts can be entrenched in their craft, and anything which threatens the delivery of their product or makes it different can be seen as a risk.

However, COVID-19 has forced a change in attitude. Past scepticism has had to be pushed aside. There has been a realisation across the board that broadcasters and rights holders must embrace cloud-based and virtualised technologies to meet consumer distribution objectives.

We’re already seeing new production platforms which are completely cloud native, which are helping to mitigate concerns around latency. AWS’s new cloud digital interface (CDI) service, for example, allows users to move uncompressed video at very low latency around the public cloud, offering the highest quality and lowest latency for remote production and content processing.

As we head into 2021, we know remote production is here to stay – regardless of what the ‘new normal’ looks like. Now, other technologies on the horizon are set to take centre stage.

VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) should have a big year but not necessarily in the way we have previously anticipated: we can expect to see more sports content being produced with virtual or augmented aspects similar to how the NBA did during the ‘bubbled’ season climax in Miami, where fans were virtually projected onto digital signage screens around the stadium for a more dynamic experience for consumers watching the matches.

We’re also seeing a growing number of federations and clubs adopting virtualised advertising technologies such as digital boards customised to suit each watching region, without disrupting the quality of images. As revenues across industries have been slashed this year, new ways of getting eyes on ads has been much needed.

This was the year that sports fans discovered that it’s possible to cheer for their new favourite teams in a virtual gaming environment as much as in ‘real life’. Virtual games like the Minecraft Championships have attracted their own community of players and personalities, generating a mass following and high levels of engagement. By communicating in real-time with their followers, these influencers have provided a new and exciting fan experience than what’s typically expected in sports – and something athletes have struggled to recreate en masse.

With celebrities and politicians joining the game streaming trend, the appeal and value of competitive gaming, e-sports and virtual events is bigger than ever. However, it’s not a zero-sum game. The trend has allowed broadcasters to diversify their offerings and think of new innovative ways to deliver content and engage with fans across markets. Next year is set to bring even more innovation with a surge in more interactive video services like Twitch. Additionally, with two big recent console launches driving developers to update their games and platforms, eSports will continue to grow.

This year has challenged the industry like no other. Collectively, it’s had to be agile, flexible and open to new ideas to keep consumers entertained and elevate sports production to a whole new level. While the impact of COVID-19 is far from over, the sports broadcasting sector now knows how to adapt and thrive in unchartered territory.

Greg Burns is head of business development at communications infrastructure company Arqiva

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