Executive Perspectives: The State of Mobile Sports Production, Part 1

Remote-production leaders sound off on the current state and future of the industry

thumb-execsEven with mobile sports production booming, truck providers face a host of challenges — both for today and for tomorrow. Although more sports events than ever are being produced for television and streaming, vendors are being asked to deliver more for less as networks look to trim production costs. In addition, technology continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, forcing providers to address the needs of today while preparing for the potential arrival of 4K and IP infrastructure. SVG sat down with 15 industry leaders to discuss the current state of the business and, more important, where it’s headed in the coming years.

Here are the executives we spoke with:
Mary Ellen Carlyle, SVP/GM, Dome Productions
Len Chase, president, CSP Mobile
Craig Farrell, president, Alliance Productions
Philip Garvin, GM/founder, MTVG
Robby Greene, president/COO, IMS Productions
George Hoover, CTO, NEP
Mike Johnson, director, engineering, Dome Productions
Tim Lewis, president/founder, Proshow Broadcast
Bob Lyon, president/founder, Lyon Video
Kevin Moorhouse, managing director, Gearhouse Broadcast
George Orgera, president/CEO, F&F Productions
Chad Snyder, account manager/GM, Lyon Video
Pat Sullivan, president, Game Creek Video
Jason Taubman, VP, design and new technology, Game Creek Video
Mike Werteen, co-president, U.S. Mobile Units, NEP Broadcasting

Do you consider the current state of the remote-production business healthy? Why? What is your forecast for the market over the next 12-24 months?
Carlyle:
I believe the current state of the remote-production business is very healthy. However, change is inevitable, and we need to be ready to adapt and transition to meet the needs of our clients. Corporate integration, rapid technological change, fragmented audiences, decreasing advertising revenues, and increasing content-rights costs are conditions leading to increased pressure on production budgets.

Chase: With the addition of more sports networks to the market, the need for content is growing. I am concerned that prices are getting lower each year, but I am hopeful that it will bottom out soon.

Farrell: The addition of all these different tiers of work help the industry. A 53-ft. truck has more opportunities today than it did a few years ago. It can do a 15-camera show and then a REMI show to fill in some white space on the calendar the next day. To me, that is a very healthy business.

Garvin: Yes, the business is reasonably healthy, and I expect current trends to be consistent for at least the next two years. However, those trends include tremendous downward pressure on pricing and increased demand for new technologies in trucks.

Greene: Yes, I do. If you offer superior technology and sincere client-based creative solutions along with the hardest-working team in the business, the supply of events needing remote-production facilities is healthy. As for the forecast, we are inherently in a business that continues to evolve and shift. The future looks good. The exact nature of what we’re doing and how we’re delivering the products may look different, but we are forecasting growth — and lots of it.

Lyon: Remote production is healthy. We are seeing more event coverage from both traditional and non-traditional sources.

Orgera: Yes, though we have some concerns. F&F was fortunate to experience company growth this year with the acquisition of Crosscreek. The industry is thriving in many areas, mainly in the number of events that are being covered for broadcast and the dramatic growth in large streaming events. The additional acquired inventory has allowed F&F to service the growing needs of our clients. However, in that vein, we have great concerns about the technology companies/vendors that provide equipment to the remote-production companies that allow us to service our clients; their business models have changed significantly, and the proposed restructuring and how they will provide services and equipment to remote vendors will be so costly that it will cripple the industry and stagnate the remote companies’ abilities to grow at the rate our clients need and require. It is a huge concern and one that we believe the entire industry should address.

Sullivan: The business is healthy. Demand is increasing, and the requirements for the larger productions continue to grow. I do not see that changing over the next 24 months.

Werteen: It depends on how you define healthy. If your goal is — as it is at NEP — to focus on serving clients and keeping happy employees, then the state of NEP is healthy. The industry has changed dramatically over the last five years. If you define healthy as getting the same return you did five years ago, then the industry is not as healthy. I do scratch my head about some deals where organizations try to make themselves believe that unsound business deals somehow make sense. I have never been a believer in “loss-leader” pricing strategies; that is how you become unhealthy.

Is there a specific technology (or technologies) that clients are demanding more these days?

Johnson: Specialty cameras, support for bulk audio, and alternative supply of produced media, such as C-Cast, Burst, and other published deliveries. Also, home-based production control with links to remote cameras and audio as means to produce live events (REMI).

Hoover: Refining and improving file-based workflow connectivity with home base.

Snyder: Super-slow motion is still the most requested technology. A fiber kit for announcers is a common technology we are frequently [deploying].

Farrell: 6X super-slo-mo is probably the biggest request right now.

Taubman: The Sony HDC-4300 is the killer app at the moment. Doing 8X slo-mo with 4300 is something that everyone wants to get their hands on. Also, acquisition is the key thing in anticipating the move to 4K, and that will be a big tool to get there.

Have you seen increased interest in “at-home” production, deploying minimal crew/facilities onsite? If so, how are you adapting your facilities?
Taubman:
As we put new big trucks on the road, we are not really changing our strategy. But we have a bunch of clients who are approaching us about at-home production to get more of their content on the air for cheaper. We are trying to help them explore that, and it’s definitely right in line with the IP-production conversation. The transition to IP is the conversation for all of this from 4K at the top to at-home production at the bottom.

Farrell: We get some requests, and we do some REMI events when it makes sense and there is open space on the calendar. I think people are still figuring out the best way to do it and which events to do it on. Right now, there isn’t enough of it to grow a good business plan on. Also, the economics and ROI are so different between those [smaller REMI] units and a 53-ft. truck.

Carlyle: Over the next 12-24 months, I believe, we are going to see a lot more at-home productions. This format shift is becoming more attractive to broadcasters as it offers them the potential to cut remote-production costs. We saw growth in REMI at-home production. We supplied ESPN with a hybrid option: Horizon, a full production mobile when needed and a REMI option when desired. We also supplied ESPN with Spring, a brand-new mobile with only audio, cameras, intercom, router, and distribution gear, which has been very busy every week.

Garvin: Yes, definitely. We welcome these and have assigned several of our mobile units to serve them. Once the networks have had enough experience with these to clearly define their specifications long term, we will build mobile units specifically for this purpose.

Lewis: This has been an explosive growth market for us. It has grown from a single client to multiple clients and extended outside of college sports into professional leagues. To facilitate it, we have launched four remote trucks specifically designed and equipped to meet the needs of at-home productions for a variety of clients. This coming year, we expect to undertake nearly 500 productions with this methodology. Over the next 12-24 months, we expect to see a continued increase in demand for at-home–production facilities and are focusing our expansion in this area.

Snyder: We have been quoting [at-home–based] jobs for the past year. From a volume perspective, they are frequently quoted, but I can count on my hands the total true at-home productions that have taken place from Lyon Video mobile units.

What impact do you believe recent industry consolidation has had on the business? Do you think this trend of consolidation will continue?
Carlyle:
I do believe there will be another wave of consolidation. I believe there are still small mobile companies — one [unit] or two — with owners who are ready to move on. The impact of consolidation has been beneficial to Dome in that consolidation has led to opportunities as well as the ability to fulfill capacity challenges with us buying CBC [Mobile Productions].

Chase: With the decrease in rates, it is hard for many companies to stay competitive. This has contributed to the consolidation of many of the smaller mobile companies. I believe it has hurt the industry in the short run, but I think it will make it stronger in the long run. I think we are getting close to the end of consolidation.

Farrell: It’s inevitable that you’re going to see consolidation, and some companies are going to acquire others. It has the potential to hurt the client [since there aren’t] as many options, but the client still has options at many different levels. I don’t have a problem with [consolidation]. I think the smaller companies give better customer service, but the larger companies may have more depth of trucks and equipment to service a client. They both have their plusses and minuses.

Garvin: There might be a little more consolidation but not much more. It’s tough for smaller mobile-unit companies to function in an environment where capital needs are so high and so recurrent.

Lyon: Consolidation of major mobile-unit companies at this point will be more difficult because of the larger amounts of dollars involved.

Sullivan: “Recent industry consolidation” is not so recent. There has been consolidation since the business started. I don’t believe there has been a big impact here in the U.S.; I’m not sure our European friends feel the same way. There is not much more consolidation to be done here so we may be close to the end of the trend.

Werteen: We, of course, have been the leader in consolidation, and I have seen the positive impact on our organization. Injecting more smart people into a business can never be a bad thing. It’s not always easy: more people, more geographies demand greater understanding and communication. For NEP, the benefits have far outweighed the risks: we have greater scale to service clients globally; we have more resources to deploy intelligently; we have greater depth than any organization in our industry, keeping us focused on our values. All benefits. Some say we have seen this type of consolidation previously. Not from my seat. Not nearly the global reach or diversification the NEP Worldwide Network now has.

Outside of technological challenges, what are your biggest concerns today?
Carlyle:
Our biggest challenge lies in personnel, in maintaining good solid remote engineers who not only have a wealth of experience but the willingness to have an open mind and embrace technological change.

Chase: Travel cost is the biggest thing for us, even if the client is reimbursing us. If the cost keeps going up, it cuts into their budgets, and they look to cut shows or truck and crew cost.

Greene: Personnel. Our people and the conduit for providing and then training the next generation are what keeps me up at night.

Hoover: As we transition away from “big-iron” technologies with long life cycles to more IT- and consumer-based technologies with short life cycles, end-of-life issues are becoming a concern. In fairness to broadcast-equipment suppliers, they are not the culprit; it’s the chip and drive makers who are constantly making improvements (good thing) and discontinuing availability of older parts as replacements (bad thing). Feature improvements [that] we as an industry request often necessitate more-complex software that won’t run on older systems, forcing upgrades — not unlike what happens with our personal electronics — at a very rapid pace.

Lewis: The life cycle of equipment is getting shorter as the speed of technology change increases. We are acutely aware of the need to achieve a return on investment at a more rapid rate than in the past.

Moorhouse: Global political instability and its possible effects on global sporting events.

Orgera: Obviously, technology is changing by the minute, which poses one of our biggest concerns. Attracting, acquiring, and retaining great engineering talent to operate all of the technology is critical and has always been a huge focus for F&F. A top priority is to find the right blend of seasoned engineers and growing the younger engineering talent that is needed to take the broadcasting industry into the future.

Sullivan: The recent explosion in rights fees puts a great deal of pressure on containing production costs. Some of that cost cutting can ultimately affect efficiency and the product we deliver.

[Click here for Executive Perspectives: The State of Mobile Sports Production, Part 2.]