The future of sport

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Without broadcast technology, many sports fans around the world would not be able to share in the excitement of their favourite sporting events. Broadcasting technologies have transformed the spectator experience, making the many thrilling performances featured in top-tier sporting events available on multiple platforms and in multiple formats.

As technology develops and new methods of broadcast are devised, the rights holders of major sporting enterprises are also looking at new ways of licensing their product. A lot happened in the world of sport in 2015 but the focus now is on Brazil as the country prepares to take center stage in the sporting universe in the run up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

SPORTY TECH IN PLAYING FIELD:  4K in the lead, Oculus Rift VR headset and Microsoft HoloLens

2015 was a momentous year in the world of sport; we witnessed some amazing coverage of many great events. Sport is a vital lifeline for traditional TV broadcasters; globally 97% of all sports programming is watched live and the public’s insatiable desire for more keeps fueling the fire. Because of this sport broadcasters are at the forefront of technology and, more importantly, experimenting with new technologies.

4K has to be the big-ticket item driving the industry at the moment. In August last year, BT Sport Ultra HD was launched, giving Europe its first paid 4K channel. BT TV is a subscription IPTV service with, close to 1.4 million subscribers and their decision to go 4K was based on 18 months of research, surveys and test trials. While BT Sport was able take the terrestrial route, this is not feasible for everyone. In the case of 4K, where a significantly large amount of bandwidth is needed to deliver the high quality content for all TV homes, satellite will be a key transmission. This is when the adoption of the new High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) standard becomes crucial, as satellite then is able to cost-effectively distribute Ultra-HD content to the largest number of households among all broadcasting infrastructures. In 2015 France Télévisions not only filmed every match on the centre court of Roland Garros in 4K but also broadcast the events via both terrestrial and satellite channels using HEVC codecs, so that any French homes with 4K TVs could receive it. This was a successful test that saw increased sales in 4K TV sets nationally.

American satellite Pay-TV services giant DirecTV launched two new satellites into orbit in the last year for the sake of developing direct 4K video and live content transmission services for subscribers and is now moving ever closer to being a major leader in this growing content landscape. DirecTV has completed the process of testing ultra HD 4K sportscast transmissions via satellite as a run-up to a formal launch of this service at some point in early 2016. DirecTV is already offering a limited OTT service of 4K-entertainment distribution and has been doing so since late 2014 but the existing service is available to only some consumers and comes with a very limited selection of content.

ESPN has long been at the forefront of broadcast technology, and the network has many of the necessary technical assets in place for a 4K migration whenever it chooses to make the move. The studio where SportsCenter is filmed, for example, can support 4K and even 8K broadcasts. Also, ESPN already shoots some content using 4K cameras, although the footage is largely used for zoom-in shots of game-changing plays. The real question for viewers in the US is when will sports network ESPN take the UHD plunge or at the very least, when will viewers have an opportunity to watch games from the American sports franchises in Ultra HD?

ESPN comments that while they have the technical capacity and capability to make the move to UHD broadcasting, “they are looking into it and will make a decision about 4K when the time is right for them”. This attitude is probably because of the failure of 3D TV. After launching a standalone channel with much fanfare in 2010, ESPN quietly folded up its 3D TV experiment in 2013, added to which they feel that much of the US has lacked the necessary infrastructure for widespread 4K video distribution, and there’s still a limited ecosystem for 4K technology. They are watching the BT TV model with much interest as well as Canadian cable operator Rogers Communications Inc. which has been involved in the expansion of the gigabit networks in Canada and announced that they are ready to start broadcasting sport coverage in UHD this year, promising over 100 live events to their subscribers.

OTT broadcasters are at the forefront of native Ultra-HD productions followed by an increasing number of linear broadcasters that are producing in 4K as well. This trend, coupled with the high number of 4K TVs at end-consumer homes, gives us good reasons to believe that adoption of Ultra-HD could go quicker than expected. It may well be that 4K becomes mass market by 2016/2017.

HDR a close second

4K is not the only technology in sport broadcasting to get excited about. Keeping fingers on the technological pulse is in the broadcaster’s DNA… and that’s why most broadcasters are also looking at High Dynamic Range (HDR) to see how this can be incorporated into our 4K delivery, especially in the sport arena.

In recent months Virtual Reality (VR) and 360 degree video, has been a big talking point. Particularly with the release Microsoft’s HoloLens and more recently the new Oculus Rift VR headset, now owned by Facebook. 360-degree video is possibly the next big breakthrough for sport broadcasting and we have seen great examples of its potential from the Red Bull Formula 1 racing team. While 360-degree video is currently not available as a live stream, the amount of investment going into the technology surely means that it is inevitable. Trials are currently being conducted at football stadiums and cricket grounds in Europe and Australia.

Sporting organisations are all too willing to experiment with new technologies. This is evident by the recent virtual reality content filmed for Samsung’s Gear VR at the NBA’s all-star weekend. The National Hockey League (NHL) also experimented with using GoPro cameras for its all-star weekend to give viewers a live point-of-view perspective.

OTT enters the game

While the 2012 London Olympic Games provided one of the most connected global experiences ever, 2016 in Brazil could see some much-anticipated new technology unleashed.

The International Olympic Committee’s broadcast unit has a history of using the Olympic Games as a launch pad for new viewing experiences. In the past, TV networks covering the Olympics delivered only prime-time evening coverage of what happened that day, with taped highlights of various events tightly packaged into several hours of programming. That approach changed dramatically with the 2008 Beijing Olympics when NBC Universal, the provider of Olympics coverage for American audiences, offered not only hours of TV and cable coverage but also thousands of hours of coverage online. Internet online broadcast of sporting events has not only increased the total hours of airtime, but more importantly, the number of viewers at any one time – a great dangling carrot for TV station advertising revenue streams.

While Japanese broadcaster NHK will be conducting transmission tests for 8K broadcasts, the broadcast division of the International Olympic Games has said that, as the entire broadcast ecosystem will be a 4K workflow, there are no plans for TV broadcasting in 4K Ultra HD at Rio 2016, but have shown interest in trials of virtual reality technologies. The technology is maturing quickly. There is real interest in virtual experiences to mobile phones. One VR application that they are exploring is around viewing aspects of the games after the event.

As the methods of sport broadcast delivery diversify, sporting bodies and federations are looking at alternate ways of licensing their wares. The online video market is estimated to be worth US$200 billion to US$400 billion, with YouTube having the largest share. YouTube currently has more than 1 billion users, has more than 300 hours of video uploaded to its site every minute, and is localised in 75 countries and available in 61 languages. It was recently reported that in the US YouTube reached more Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 than any cable channel, including ESPN. There has also been a 50% growth in the amount of time users spend watching videos on YouTube year over year, of which 50% of viewing is via mobile. The live streams on YouTube have the potential to far outweigh the highest audience ratings of most television broadcasters.

It is reasons like this that have attracted Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) and the Australian Football League (AFL) to enter into discussion with Google to have their games broadcast via YouTube from 2017.

YouTube has made a shift toward professional sports media over the past few years. In 2010 it secured the live-streaming rights of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket. Three years later, YouTube began to experiment with major American sports, including Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Is it possible therefore that YouTube has the potential to lead the way in new forms of sports broadcasting?

In the current media environment it seems that it may not replace the current broadcast of sport, but what it will do is allow sporting disciplines like the NFL and AFL to be internationalised by making it available to people outside Australia increasing the viewer and fan base. In addition to providing a liner stream, YouTube could be a potential platform for sporting organisations to experiment further with new broadcast and viewing technologies. Watch this space…

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