Sports Asset Management Forum: League Execs Target Pain Points in Asset Management Operations

Addressing the multitude of content hours, formats, and codecs that the NFL must contend with on a daily basis, NFL Films/NFL Network VP and Executive in Charge of Production Development and Support Dave Franza quoted a visionary well-versed in the challenges of video production.

“As Steve Sabol likes to say,” recounted Franza, “we have to get the pig through the python every day.”

From left to right: Zuffa's Christy King, ESPN's Ken Boudreau, NASCAR's Christopher Witmayer, NFL Films/Network's Dave Franza, NHL's Grant Nodine, and NBA Entertainment's Bob Carney

Sabol’s assessment of asset-management challenges may seem an exaggeration, but the colorful metaphor nonetheless rang true at SVG’s Sports Asset Management Forum in Secaucus, NJ. Representatives from NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, NASCAR, UFC, and ESPN agreed that managing and transporting the sheer volume of content created by their respective leagues and networks posed the biggest challenge to their daily operations.

Feeding Content to Wherever the Producer May Be
While NFL Films and NFL Network both fall under the umbrella of the NFL, the asset-management workflows are as far apart as their respective headquarters.  NFL Films, based in Mount Laurel, NJ, has amassed nearly 175 million feet of film since the production company’s founding in 1965.  Conversely, NFL Network operates out of a completely file-based studio in Culver City, CA.

“[NFL Network] is a news organization. They take content in every day and turn it around very quickly,” Franza explained.  “NFL Films provide them with content as they need it for shows, as well. But to get NFL Films to a fully file-based environment with all the film that we have — and in fact, we still shoot quite a bit on film — is a big task.”

Interoperability, one of several panel buzzwords, also factors into the challenges involved in the NFL Films-NFL Network dynamic.  The NFL uses Final Cut Pro on the online side, Avid on the offline side, and an internal research tool known as SABER that aggregates, indexes, and archives all league content created since 1990.  In each of the three digital environments, content has traditionally been stored as scenes, which requires producers to download time-consuming, long-form videos rather than easily accessible clips.

“One of the big issues we have is taking our entire library that we have already encoded in several flavors going back to 1990 and transferring that from a long-form format to a clip format,” said Franza, “so that we can do file transmission much faster and not have to deal with the partial file restore issue that we have. From a transcoding standpoint, we’ve got a huge job ahead of us.”

Facing a “pig through the python” issue of its own, ESPN must supply content to production teams in the field without knowing if the on-site broadband connection will be up to task.

“Production teams work days, and sometimes weeks, in advance before they go to a live event and they wake up the morning of the event and a player may have done something that disqualifies them from play,” said Ken Boudreau, senior director, media technologies and engineering, ESPN. “Then, there’s a new player they didn’t anticipate on the roster and they have no footage so how do they get it day of?”

Using Starbucks as a test site, ESPN has been running experiments to FTP content from Bristol to the remote site.

“We wanted to give the worst scenario, because we don’t do events in NBA stadiums or NFL stadiums everyday,” Boudreau explained. “The meat and potatoes are what we do, [such as] college stadiums, where you’re lucky to get a signal at all.”

Metadata Gets Emotional
After moving into its new Charlotte, NC, facility two years ago, NASCAR Media Group continues to ingest more than 180,000 hours of content.  For Christopher Witmayer, director of broadcast, production, and new media technology for NASCAR Media Group, the biggest challenge is logging.

“We have all this content, we have to find a way to log it and standardize that logging with metadata tags,” he said. “Obviously, the reason you want to log all this it to make more shows and offer it to fans. So, how do you log all that stuff?”

Witmayer introduced another buzzword into the asset-management conversation: emotional logging. Automated logging powered by Sportvision enables Witmayer and Co. to determine the events of any particular race at any given moment in time. However, additional metadata is required to explain what is really occurring.

“We really want to add that emotional data; we can tell you when a car passed somebody, but what was really going on?” Witmayer explained. “The real issue right now is the emotional logging.  Is Jimmie Johnson crying? What happened? What was the trigger that caused that action?”

From Tape to File to… iPhone?
Prior to the afternoon panel discussions, event attendees were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of NBA Entertainment’s facilities, including the Digital Media Management (DMM) System. The Digital Media Management System launched in 2006, and is currently digitizing the entire video library of the NBA dating back to 1946.

“We feel that we pretty much have nailed the archiving of both live and tape assets,” said Bob Carney, Director of DMM, NBA Entertainment.  “Our issue now is that, when we built the system, it was built to support live and tape. It wasn’t built to support all the new camera formats that are out there and that aren’t even that new any more.”

Carney’s comments suggest just how quickly technology is moving, leaving asset managers to play catch up.  In 2006, Apple had not yet released the iPhone.  Now, nearly everyone has some form of video-capture device in his or her pocket.

“Our next big challenge to solve is, how do we take everything — from a file that comes in from an iPhone to the Phantom cine files — and archive it and present it back to users where they don’t need to know what’s going on behind the scenes?”

While faced with a considerably smaller video library, Christy King, VP of digital, technology, and R&D for UFC, echoed many of the sentiments issued by Carney. Mixed-martial arts have only been on U.S. television for ten years, which allows UFC the benefit of no legacy equipment. However, the nascent league relies heavily on producers who are equally green.

“What we’re trying to make sure we do is [be able to] take in all this footage from all these different mediums,” said King. “Most of our talent is very young, they’re all walking around with [various mobile devices] and they live all over the world, so people walk in with all kinds of footage and we have to figure out what to do with it.”

King also introduced the issue of rights and permission when managing and dispatching assets; an issue that had gone unmentioned because professional leagues own the rights to their content.

“It’s great to have video searchable and it’s great to be able to find it and use it but there’s rights associated with all of that video, there’s permissions that have to be given,” King explained. “In our case, is there blood or not blood? That means we’re going to be allowed to do different things with footage… The rules are different in different countries of what you can show on TV and what constitutes violence.”

Only in New York
Located in midtown Manhattan, the NHL has many of the same challenges faced by its fellow leagues; however, paramount to VP of Technology Grant Nodine is the issue of space and “slot management”.

“At the end of the season, we go and basically remove all of the program feeds of full games from our robot — not all of them, because there’s going to be some that the postproduction guys [ask to keep] — but most of them will come out of the robot, go onto a shelf in our traditional tape library, and those slots will be freed up for the following season,” said Nodine. “I’ve got to make sure that I segregate the types of content that we put in the robot into different volume groups… making sure that I’m able to take content out of there and put it on a shelf without dragging some of the content that I want to be in there with it.”

The NHL faces the additional challenge of not having its technical operations center, live transmission, and asset management system under one roof.

“Neulion does a great job [running] our technical operations center out of their facility, so on game nights, they’re the ones that are basically answering primary trouble calls from the arenas,” said Nodine. “They’re handling all of our transmission paths, they’re making sure that feeds get to Toronto for video goal review [and] into streaming servers for Game Center Live and our mobile products.”

Climbing the Media Mountain
With media libraries growing by leaps and bounds each day, professional sports leagues must strive to keep up.  Tab Butler, director of media management and postproduction at MLB Network, moderated the session and summed up the panelists’ pain points with his own.

“I think the [question] is, What mountain are you standing on and which mountain are you trying to climb?” he posed. “What I’m challenged with, especially in asset management and in archiving, is [trying to] extend the life of the investment that I currently have today.”

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