Game Time


The technical and programming heads at leading sports broadcasters assembled at Hotel Sahara Star to discuss the current and future trends in sports programming

By Satyam Nagwekar

With rapid strides in technology, an even greater degree of personalised content delivery is upon us. This is especially true for sports telecasts as various platforms have emerged, vying for fans’ attention. As a result, rights holders and their production companies are investing in equipment that can support the fast-moving elements in the live sports environment. Keeping a keen eye on the fast-evolving Indian market, Avid partnered Digital Studio to organise a round table that brought the focus squarely on the sports arena, bringing together experts in the sports media industry to analyse the scenario in the Indian context and talk about the way forward.

Up for the debate, the participants of the Avid Sports Round Table gathered at Hotel Sahara Star, Mumbai, last month braving Mumbai’s Friday night traffic. The discussions were off to a breezy start as a number of topics pertaining to studio and sports production on the broadcast and digital platforms were tabled. The group also discussed the challenges faced in creating engaging, compelling content to optimise the value of media assets today and the technology used to present content for viewers.

The ball was set rolling by a round of opening remarks by Vinita Bhatia, the editor of Digital Studio. The round table—comprising Disney’s Manas Ranjan Mati, Neo Sports’ Mautik Tolia and Abhishek Mukherjee, Sony’s Kingshuk Bhattacharya and Sujay Hanje, Star Sports’ Rahul Manglik, and Star India’s Anirban Banerjee—was moderated by Jason Cowan, business development manager (sport and graphics), Avid and his colleague Amir Hochfeld, senior manager (sports solutions), Avid. Cowan, who started his career as a cameraman working for Reuters, joined Avid last year after working on the UEFA Champions League, among many other events, in various capacities. Hochfeld’s career has also followed a similar path. After working as a sports producer for more than 20 years, he worked with Orad for five years. The company was acquired by Avid two and a half years ago.

Being Watchful
There are various concerns that have emerged over the past few years. For instance, in the UK, the price of the Premier League rights to BT Sport and Sky Sports increased by 70%–USD5.14 billion was paid between BT Sport and Sky Sports for the last round of rights (2016-2019). Unfortunately, in spite of paying so much money, the viewership decreased. Sports rights holders completely understand the value of the broadcast chain. But what is different is that they want their own direct relationship with the end consumer. They want to be able to directly engage with fans and be able to monetise that connect.
As a result, sports properties are reorganising themselves. They are changing the direction to meet the new needs of consumers. Therefore, social media platforms and other new media giants are gradually deepening their involvement. “We all know about Amazon and its aspirations and what is happening with Netflix as well,” said Cowan. Therefore, the rights are getting increasingly segmented. So, when broadcasters earlier bought the rights package, they pretty much got everything. What is happening is that rights holders have got a little bit smarter, and they are carving up the rights. So, you might get the broadcast rights, but you might not necessarily get the digital rights or you might not get the social media rights.
Kingshuk Bhattacharya manages the entire post production facilities and broadcast operations for Sony Pictures Networks. In his last seven years with the company, the broadcaster has launched in 27 channels. He has also been instrumental in moving Ten Sports from Noida to Singapore. The broadcaster is currently in the process of setting up its own state-of-the-art studios with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

“Earlier, people were hesitant about watching sports on mobile here because the graphics were too small. All of that is behind us now. The mobile audience is going to be a huge potential in India, where many people, because of the huge geography, are unable to attend the game,” said Bhattacharya.

Cowan agreed. “What we see as one of the key trends is the move to OTT and digital. You can get a completely separate package that is a subscription service wherein you can get all kinds of content and additional content that you are not going to get from the broadcaster. If you look at Major League Baseball (MLB) and the way that they have moved into OTT, they are generating 750 million in a year following the move.”

Another key trend that is likely to be witnessed in America and Europe is at-home production. Sports Video Group (SVG), an all sports video group that is an American and European body, looked at the key trends, which are moving towards at-home production.

The cost to put people on location is high. It’s the manpower that is often the primary cost. “The equipment is one thing but the people cost is huge,” pointed out Cowan.

Anirban Banerjee, who made his start in news channels, is in his fourth year with Star India as AVP (broadcast technology). “You can’t compromise on the quality. You have to always aim for innovation, which is one way to connect with the masses. Apart from taking care of the sports that are already there, such as football, tennis, and cricket, sports like kabaddi are making a comeback.”

Manglik joined Star Sports four years ago and was a part of the team that moved the broadcast facility from Singapore to India. “Pressing multiple regional feeds to go to different services for Star Sports, that is not the way forward. The way forward is to bring all the feeds to the central production unit and from there just coupling them.” This saves a lot of costs and makes absolute sense from the manpower perspective as well as from the satellite bandwidth perspective.

Virtual Take off
Manas Ranjan Mati, who is the head of technology for Disney India, has been extensively involved in setting up channels for the company. Disney’s sports play in India, ESPN, is managed by Sony. Said Mati, “Even an advanced country like the US has not adopted VR in a big way. This is largely because of the restrictions imposed by the device. As a broadcaster, you have to undertake a strategic tie up with a device manufacturer. The area where VR will do well is gaming or 2 to 5 minute videos that have instructional content.”

Bhattacharya added that VR was more for sports where the area of action was smaller, suiting a sport such as kabaddi.
“VR is a very interesting topic. At the conferences that I go to, broadcasters seem to be nervous about the technology as many have burnt their fingers with the 3D experience. Many have spent a lot of money on 3D,” pointed out Cowan. “I personally don’t think you can watch a whole game in VR, especially a game of cricket, but there are pieces of the game that you get a great experience. For its coverage of the UEFA Champions League final, BT put 12 cameras to cover the action.”
According to Hochfeld, the question is how big the market is. Moreover, this kind of technology, which is a little bit expensive, needing the glasses or high-speed internet, hasn’t penetrated the length and breadth of a country like India.

“While the experience was very engaging and immersive, after five to seven minutes, I started having this fatigue of watching something very close to my eye. And I had to take the glasses off,” added Abhishek Mukherjee, who consults for Neo Sports and handles the technology and operations division.

The Big Picture
Giving an overview on the sports industry currently and some key themes that are coming out in the market, Cowan said: “Amazon has actually out bid Sky this week for the HD channels. That is what’s happening. They will take it as a last leader to be able to promote other content and series and so forth. They have deeper pockets so this is the main concern. From the broadcast perspective, we wonder what is going to happen when Netflix, Amazon, Google and others really get behind this.”
With experience of two decades in sports, Mautik Tolia currently works for Neo Sports at the broadcaster’s Malad facility in Mumbai. “From the Neo Sports perspective, I just feel that most of sports broadcasting till now has been one size fits all, so it has been fairly vanilla, fairly standardised till date. But I guess the next five years is going to see extreme levels of customisation. So you are going to go in the high end of the spectrum, which is 4K and 3D and all kinds of things and you also have to go on the lower end of the spectrum, which is again home production with everyone getting into regional leagues like we do.”

He added, “So you want someone who is going to be a technology solutions provider, who is going to be hand holding you most of the time and helping you kind of traverse this world because I think we’re going into an area that none of us have all the answers to.”

Citing the example of kabaddi, Banerjee said, “We have kabaddi in our DNA but we have to take the sport to the masses. My son has never played the sport but gets excited when he watches the game. So, I can see that the connection of the people, everyone, how they connect to the game, which is most important. The important thing is how you can provide the technology efficiently across your customers and we don’t restrict ourselves only to satellite connectivity.”
When you look at the younger generation coming through, when they watch TV, they don’t sit like they are in class. They are not focussing just on whatever they are watching but also a second screen, tweeting and communicating with friends. Mati, however, differed. “If you look at the cinema halls, young people are willing to pay the money and concentrate on the movie. You don’t do anything else.”

Changing consumer behavior aside, in the end, it’s about how you monetise new technology, how you pay for it. That’s where the answer lies.

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