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Five Takeaways from Sports Production in 2020

sports stadium COVID-19
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The recent Sports Video Group Summit offered interesting sessions and meaningful opportunities for interaction, bringing together some of the most experienced and knowledgeable people from across sports production to share insights from a year that pushed the industry to innovate, iterate and rethink how things will be done for years to come. For me, five important themes emerged.

1.  Workflow changes and innovation have accelerated

COVID, and its health and safety concerns, are driving faster decision-making and innovation, and breaking down the resistance of those who normally resist change.

For example, REMI and at-home production models that keep the control room at headquarters, reducing staffing at event locales have been discussed for years. NBC tried portions of this as long ago as the 1996 Olympics. It’s amazing how long it’s taken for this to become standard operating procedure, but finally, there can be no doubt that it is a critical technique.

Virtually every major broadcaster and league reported that REMI became essential to their event coverage during 2020. Looking ahead, ESPN reported it will be 50% REMI for basketball coverage this upcoming season.

This trend extends to talent, too, with off-tube sportscasting looking prevalent not only today, but in the future. Several production teams reported that they are no longer having talent travel to stadiums, opting instead for announcers to call games from the safety of the studio or even their own homes.

We’re also seeing consolidation of content creation led by home game feeds that increasingly serve a broader role as “world feed.” No longer are we using two mobile units to create separate home and away broadcasts of one game. Instead, one control room produces generic game coverage. This reduces the number of staff on-site to help with health and safety, but also has significant implications for cost reduction. 

2.  Editing in the cloud works, and may be more efficient

Broadcasters including NBC Sports and ESPN reported that their entire edit staff now works from home. National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) reported a 100% productivity improvement, finding that editors freed of in-office distractions produce twice as much content.

Another broadcaster shifted their slo-mo EVS operators to work-from-home and found that one operator could now cover as many as three games in a day. Compare that with previous costs of traveling to a stadium where output might be one game in three days.  One production facility reported that they’d been able to convert “old edit rooms” (in use less than a year ago) into teleprompter and graphics facilities, reducing the number of people present in control rooms. 

3.  Sport requires fans

Industry leaders pointed back to early, pandemic-inhibited, televised sports events in 2020 such as Bundesliga, Germany’s premier football league, to highlight the importance of crowd noise and illustrate what an inferior experience it was to watch without the sound.

Virtually every subsequent sporting event has had some version of synthetic crowd noises. NFL Media even gathered NFL Films archive material so the sounds of each stadium would be authentic. The NBA thought crowd participation so important that it pumped virtual crowd noise into courts in Orlando to motivate the players.    

On the visual side, leagues experimented with virtual crowds. MLB increasingly filled its stands with cardboard cutouts purchased by adoring fans and used donations to support various charities.  Fox Sports for MLB, the Premier League and NBA all experimented with computer-generated virtual fans. 

4.  Latency matters 

Operations/engineering leaders challenged vendors to innovate and expressed the need for solutions to enable seamless storytelling. The “work-from-anywhere” dynamic is efficient and safe, but introduces latency and synchronization challenges.

These are magnified by the compression needed to connect with teammates and contributors over the internet. Latency above 300-350 milliseconds interferes with intimacy and inhibits peoples’ ability to interact naturally on air, yet several vendors spoke about systems introducing delays measured in seconds.

At the Transport roundtable panelists explored tradeoffs between low latency and high quality. Getting the story from a remote location, e.g., over LTE, often outweighed quality concerns, but the ideal is solutions with an immediate lag-free connection and high image quality. 

5.  Teamwork makes the dream work 

The changes above represent a tectonic shift in sports coverage, made more remarkable because they happened in less than one year.   Speakers addressed not only teamwork among their staff, but the unprecedented cooperation across leagues and networks.

The NFL Draft was one of the first major sporting events during the pandemic. Dave Shaw and his teammates spoke at length about the coordination that made it possible to shift the traditional in-person draft to a seamless virtual experience in just five weeks. He credited the enormous teamwork of the league, NFL Network, ESPN, ABC, D-TAGs and the three key remote vendors (including my own, the VCC) to make it possible. 

 

It became very clear that these changes are not temporary. Instead, they are the start of an exciting, interesting future. Josh Stinehour and Joe Zaller of Devoncroft Partners reported that industry economics have shifted significantly as the cost savings from diversely located, IP-based production have established a new baseline for budgets and operations.

They believe that more innovations will be needed and expected to get the industry back to profitability. They cited the example of TV Globo, which is no longer enhancing or building control rooms to support tier 2 or tier 3 events. Of nearly 3,000 sports games per year, they have transitioned to cloud-based systems to handle more than 1,000 of them.  

I’ve been fortunate through my work with the VCC to have a front-row seat to the innovative efforts of NFL Network, Turner, Fox Sports, Sinclair and WWE this year. The SVG event pulled the camera back even farther, spotlighting remarkable achievements and collaboration across the entire production industry. I’m excited and fascinated to see what is ahead and wish all of you a healthy holiday season and upcoming year.

Larry Thaler is CEO of The Video Call Center.