Sep 18th 2020

How have live sports and sports broadcast had to adjust to covid-19; what’s the future of sports broadcast?

Part 2 – Future of sports broadcasting

“Football is nothing without fans”

Those are the words of Sir Matt Busby, the legendary Scot who led Manchester United to European glory in 1968, and who is without a doubt one of the greatest managers of football’s first golden era – before satellite TV.

Those are also the words which adorn a banner stretched out across the Stretford End stand of United’s Old Trafford home. That home, dubbed the Theatre of Dreams in Busby’s time, has become more of a theatre of the absurd in recent months. Like every other stadium across the country, Old Trafford is closed to spectators, but its empty stands will once again be beamed to fans around the world via the TV companies which dictate so much of modern sports’ decision making.

As the 2020/21 season gets underway, there is still no timeframe for when fans will be allowed to return, so in part 2 of this blog we’ll look at how the broadcasters are once again turning to tech to try and replicate the matchday atmosphere, and how tech might shape the long-term future of sports broadcasting.

Can you match the match atmosphere?

Let’s return to that quote from Sir Matt for a second. If football – or sport more widely – is nothing without fans, is it still interesting to watch? How do you recreate the raucous atmosphere of a physical crowd in an empty stadium?

Some stadiums opted to fill their stands with cut-outs of supporters – a fairly smart way of still getting some matchday revenue in the coffers as fans paid for their likeness to be replicated – although there were plenty of examples of famous ‘wrong’uns’ cropping up in cardboard form. FC Seoul in South Korea’s K-League went a step further by opting for 3D mannequins – although thanks to a “misunderstanding” with a supplier, they ended up with a stadium filled with sex dolls!

Other clubs opted for decorative banners and tifos to fill the empty seats, but we have also seen technology used to enhance the visual presentation. In Spain’s top league, La Liga, virtual crowds were created using technology from Norwegian company VIZRT. Similar technology has been used in the United States during Major League Baseball games to overlay seats with digital avatars wearing team colours – although this was often laughed-off by commentators as looking “a bit weird” as it resembled what you’d expect to see in a mid-2010s video game crowd.

So the visual side of match-day presentation hasn’t quite hit the target, but what about the audio side, where tech is also being widely used?

Almost as soon as sport returned, Twitter was awash with debate over virtual crowd noise and whether we liked it or not. Some leagues again turned to video games with EA Sports, the developer of the popular FIFA video game series, providing its catalogue of sound effects to broadcasters to play over live pictures. The difficulty with this came in making these sounds dynamic and able to respond appropriately in real time in a fast-paced game. At present, broadcasters are relying on human input to trigger specific sounds at the appropriate moment, and it’s not always on time!

However, London-based firm OZ Sports believes Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR) could deliver a more interactive and responsive experience for virtual crowds moving forwards. OZ already works with sports leagues around the world and believes its new product, OZ Arena, can allow fans to ‘appear’ at the game digitally using their smartphone and lend their voice to a digital crowd. A dedicated application captures fan audio and manages latency and volume levels so all voices appear synchronised and no single person overpowers the others. Broadcasters can then manage the crowd audio feed and mix it in with that of the commentators. While this does sound like an improvement and more interactive than the current set-up, you have to wonder if it will be refined in time to actually be used before crowds return.

Despite a few cheers coming a touch late, opposition to the piped in ‘oooh’s and ‘aaaah’s has quietened down and the general consensus seems to be that it’s nice to hear the reactions to shots and goals you’ve come to expect. My personal opinion is that the majority of fans don’t actually ‘watch’ the game, because they’re engrossed in a second screen, and that the background noise is a kind of comfort blanket of familiarity.

Virtual crowd visuals and sounds have become an acceptable make-good; everyone knows it’s not quite the same, but it’s a fun gimmick and most would agree it’s better than looking at empty seats and only hearing the natural sounds of the pitch. I don’t think there’s much need to enhance the crowd noise or visuals much beyond what we already have, as I don’t think fans are going to watch one sport over another based on how in-tune the tech is.

Crunching the numbers

There is an area where I think tech will innovate sports broadcasting though, and that’s in the use of data, and converting stats into more engaging on-screen graphics.

Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga, has already partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to deliver real-time ‘Match Facts’ during live matches and highlights. The partnership uses AWS’s cloud infrastructure and AI capabilities to present statistics such as Average Formations and Expected Goals (xG) by crunching the numbers during the game.

For Average Formations, AWS tracks player location data in real time, offering fans insights into changes on the field and helping them understand whether a team is playing more defensively or aggressively, identify tactical changes, and see how substitutions are changing the game. Amazon’s SageMaker platform hosts Machine Learning models that can calculate the xG in real time, taking into account positional data, distance to the goal, angle to goal, player speed, number of defenders and the goalkeeper. These sorts of innovations are increasingly important to younger generations of sports fans, with studies showing they are more interested in stats and data than previous generations.

Heading back to Spain, and they’re going even bigger. This video showcases some of the graphical improvements, underpinned by AI and real-time data, that will be rolled out for the 20/21 season:

And it’s not just football turning to data to improve the broadcast experience. As the world’s most technologically advanced sport, Formula 1 is also utilising AWS’ capabilities to engage younger fans. Chief Engineer Rob Smedley said earlier this year:

“If you’re going to engage with [younger fans] then you need to talk to them in a language they’re going to understand. It’s a wholly pointless exercise to sit my kids down and ask them to watch two hours of a linear feed on a Sunday afternoon – they’d just laugh! We’ve got to use this data to tell these stories in bite-size chunks that this generation consumes sport in.”

Last year, six statistics — Exit Speed, Predicted Pit Stop Strategy, Pit Window, Battle Forecast, Pit Strategy Battle, and Tyre Performance – were added to F1 broadcasts. Six more insights will debut between now and the end of the season, the first of which was Car Performance Score.

Big data and AI are going to have an increasingly significant role to play in sports presentation, particularly over digital platforms or as part of the second-screen experience. Once 5G networks become more wide-spread, it’s likely we’ll see these types of data-led graphical innovations become part of the in-stadium experience as well.

Sir Matt was right, sport is nothing without fans and tech can’t replace them. But, it has been important in easing the awkwardness of spectator-less sport in the short-term, and will – I believe – lead the next innovations in sports broadcasting in the long-term.

Declan Bradshaw