Broadcasting live sport events in 2017 is nothing like it was two decades or so ago. You can’t seem to get through a football match or rugby fixture without being fed live odds during the interval, latest score updates and highlights from other matches. And on top of this there are the multitude of live stats, graphics and “virtual” views which accompany a fixture.
Following the general trend in viewing habits, there has been a clear shift to online and over-the-top content (OTT) in recent years, with major sporting leagues allowing certain fixtures to be broadcast over social media and other internet sources. At the start of the calendar year, the PGA Tour – one of the biggest events for golf fans – announced a partnership with Twitter that would allow the social giants to show 31 tournaments in 2017.
This has left the “traditional” television broadcasters with the difficult task of engaging viewers in ways that will encourage them to continue watching on their traditional sets. This has been done to some degree with the provision of multi-screen offerings and companion apps, offering the ability to follow or track particular players or competitors, view alternative camera angles and to select from a range of live analysis stats to augment the main feed. However, this type of content provision relies on a level of investment and technical ability that is the preserve of only the biggest dedicated sports content providers.
Having said this, there are a few statistics out there that suggest the switch to online & OTT, particularly for live sport events, isn’t as drastic as some claim. One article from an American corporation found that the National Football League’s decision to allow Twitter to broadcast Thursday Night Football had next to no effect. Of the 50 million people who tuned in, only two million watched via the social channel.
These disappointing figures from Twitter may explain why Amazon were so keen to take over ahead of the 2017 season – the NFL confirmed that this will be broadcast via the Amazon Prime app for TV and is available in over 200 countries across the world. In theory, we should see a shift in viewership; especially as Amazon’s popularity continues to grow. But, in order to take meaningful market share, they will need to employ the highest production values, alongside high profile engaging pundits and all of the supplementary graphics and analysis viewers have come to expect– and this is where the challenges and the complexities now lie.
Nowadays, people are watching more and more on-demand content. Busier lifestyles have contributed to this and the option to go back and watch your favourite shows at a time that suits you is invaluable to many. ‘Water cooler’ television does still exist however, and sport falls into this category. You won’t find too many people who want to watch an entire tennis match or epic Six Nations contest on demand, most would rather catch up on the highlights. And highlights shows are a challenge within themselves; transferring the high production values of the main broadcast, including analysis stats, commentary, pundit opinion and all the main action while condensing it into an engaging, bite-size package, in what is often a very short amount of time.
Traditional issues such as transmission delay and a lack of preparation for live events are not as common nowadays, but in years gone by, they have caused numerous headaches for broadcasters. You will still find the odd glaring mistake in subtitling but on the whole, these issues have been fixed and are no longer any kind of challenge for a broadcaster. The complexity now comes with the provision of the in depth supplementary content options and analysis data that will differentiate a broadcaster’s offering. As, even if provided by a third party, these need to be up to date, accurate and available throughout the transmission.
In an ever-changing technological landscape, the live broadcasting of major sport events is still a huge undertaking, the results of which are very important both for the fans and the big businesses behind them. Nowadays, the likes of Periscope and Meerkat give supporters the opportunity to shoot live footage from sporting events and instantly share it across social platforms.
Previously, these media channels were used for reactive content and debate but more people are now using them to broadcast direct from the events themselves, although certain authorities do have injunctions on this. The British Horseracing Authority are just one of those who clamp down hard on this in order to keep leading broadcasters such as Racing UK and At The Races on board. But this is yet another thing that adds to the responsibility and complexity of live sports broadcast; a premium provider wouldn’t want to miss a piece of action that was streamed live by a fan via Periscope.
Keeping fans watching via traditional methods engaged is key to the future of broadcasting sport on television. Figures for the United States show that sport fans are still very much behind ‘water cooler’ sport as a spectacle and people are willing to give up their time to sit down and watch their favourite events live. Hopefully it stays that way, for the good of both broadcast companies and fans across the globe. However, the multiple challenges of broadcasting live sport, while likely to change as both technology & industry continue to evolve & disrupt, are unlikely to disappear completely. After all VR (virtual reality) and the ability to “virtually” attend a live sports event is almost here!
MSA Focus & Alex McMahon
Alex is an independent writer, working in the field of broadcast, media & technology.