Collaboration, Hybrid Workflows, and a Quiet Beer: How Sky Sports Covered the Premier League Finale on Sunday
A mixture of remote production, traditional OB, and a hybrid of both were utilized by Sky Sports for its coverage of the final round of Premier League matches which took place on Sunday, July 26. The pay-TV broadcaster showed eight of the ten games – which all kicked off at 4 pm UK time – live on its channels and acted as the host broadcaster for five of them with BBC Sport producing its coverage of three others.
On the final day of last season, Sky was the host broadcaster at just two games. And it didn’t have COVID-19 to deal with. This year’s finale is a big undertaking and one that has not been taken lightly.
With Liverpool having already won the title, the editorial focus for the day will be on Champions League qualification and the teams battling against relegation.
Leicester against Manchester United will be produced entirely remotely and there will be two hybrid games: Arsenal vs Watford and Everton vs Bournemouth. These will feature NEP trucks at the Emirates Stadium and Goodison Park respectively, replays done from NEP’s base in Salford and the presentation directed from the gallery at Sky.
“This is the first time we’ll be doing eight games live simultaneously. All the matches will have augmented audio and graphics and everything you’d expect from our live set-up. It’s a huge operation.”
The Chelsea vs Wolves encounter will have replays on-site with the rest of the production done remotely. While Crystal Palace vs Spurs is the only game being produced in a purely ‘traditional’ way, with everything happening in the truck on site.
There will be between 40 and 50 crew on-site at each of the eight games, with a further 80 people working at Sky in Osterley, all socially distanced of course. 90 cameras will be deployed across the matches.
This mammoth logistical exercise has been just over three weeks in the planning but has benefitted from all the work that has been done since the Premier League re-started on 17 June, as Emma Bayliss, Sky’s senior production manager for Premier League Football, explained, chatting to SVG Europe on the eve of the final weekend.
“We’ve got used to the fast turnaround of matches over the last six weeks,” she says. “We’ll have covered 64 matches in 40 days [by Sunday]. We got the nod on Wednesday night, confirming the games we would be showing. It’s not unusual for [that information] to be this late so we’ve had plans in place without knowing the actual games.
“This is the first time we’ll be doing eight games live [simultaneously]. All the matches will have augmented audio and graphics and everything you’d expect from our live set-up. It’s a huge operation.”
COVID-19 has, of course, had an impact on these plans. Without the pandemic, the set-up might have been very different.
“For the secondary games, yes [it would have been different],” says senior football producer Billy McGinty. “We’ve conquered remote production over the last six weeks. We’ve got some hugely talented people but the mileage we’ve done is important as well. We’ve got used to how we do it.
“The combination of [people and experience], for [the last round of matches], is so valuable. In normal circumstances, no we wouldn’t have a gallery directed at Sky, a match cut in a truck outside the Emirates and replays in Salford. We’d just have a truck.”
The Leicester game will be the hub of the programming output, with presenter David Jones (pictured below, hosting Monday Night Football) anchoring from Osterley accompanied by pundits Roy Keane and Micah Richards. The build-up to the live matches will be extensive, adds McGinty.
“The two stories in our build-up hour are the top four and relegation. Clearly, we’re in good shape because [with our live matches] we’ve got the top four covered, and two of the three relegation games. We’ll have 45 minutes on the top four, including down-the-lines from Chelsea and Leicester, all hubbed from Sky Studios. And then part two will be focussed on relegation, with down-the-lines from Arsenal and Everton.”
“The challenge is to break away from what we’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks and put some old ways of working back into the system safely.”
While elements of the live match coverage will be done remotely, nearly all of the VTs for the build-up programming have been done that way too, as has been the case since the beginning of lockdown.
“The team of assistant producers (APs) who have created all the montages, with the help of Sky Production Services editing team, have cut pieces, interviews and montages from their studies, bedrooms, front rooms,” explains McGinty.
“[They] have all found new ways of working and anyone watching throughout the re-start they wouldn’t have noticed the difference between what has been packaged at Sky in years gone by and what has been packaged on a laptop at home. Credit must go to other parts of Sky.”
To make this possible, editing, MAM and archive system access has been made available remotely through virtualisation.
“Technically, very early in the lockdown, we started virtualising lots of the edit throughout the whole business,” interjects Sky Sports technical manager Gordon Roxburgh.
“We have really pushed on with that. The number of editors that can now work virtually, plugging into platforms at home, is immense.”
Interestingly, the football production team have the Academy Awards to thank, in part, for this being possible, as Roxburgh continues.
“We started this journey in February for the Oscars. We had an editor who couldn’t get to London so we built a system, proved it worked and thought it was quite cool. From there we’ve pushed on from one platform to having the majority of the edit team being able to sit at home with a virtualised edit. That has allowed Billy and the team to generate the [Premier League] content that our [viewers] expect.”
On Sunday, the ability to mix old and new in order to generate the huge volume of live content will be key, says Roxburgh.
“The challenge is to break away from what we’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks and put some old ways of working back into the system safely.
“We’re deploying trucks, with NEP, that have sat at base for the past while. We have to bring those ways of working into parallel with the way we’ve been working since the re-start and integrate them.
“And then working with our colleagues at CTV Outside Broadcasts and the BBC. The BBC is acting as a host broadcaster for us but we’re having to integrate our communications systems with them, our vision circuits, our graphics, so that they can produce a programme for Sky, which is something we’ve never really asked a third party to do before. Every one of those ways of working has levels of difference in it this weekend.”
That collaboration is clearly going to be important to the success of Sunday. McGinty has been speaking to Andrew Clement, BBC Sport executive football producer, throughout the week to manage expectations. The BBC team will take their cues from Sky, counting them on air and off air and for breaks.
“Ad breaks for a BBC crew are alien so we’ve spent time making sure they are happy with their breaks at half-time and coming on and off-air,” adds McGinty. “And editorially, for example, we’ve planned a down-the-line interview with David Silva, who is playing his last game for Manchester City. We’re collaborating there. The BBC is providing the facilities for that. This is a big collaboration.”
- Arsenal vs Watford – Live on Sky Sports Premier League
- Burnley vs Brighton – Live on Sky Sports Arena
- Chelsea vs Wolves – Live on Sky Sports Football
- Crystal Palace vs Tottenham – Live on Sky Sports Action
- Everton vs Bournemouth – Live on Sky Sports Golf
- Leicester vs Man Utd – Live on Sky Sports Main Event
- Man City vs Norwich – Live on Sky Sports Pick and Sky One
- Newcastle vs Liverpool – Live on BT Sport
- Southampton vs Sheffield United – Sky Sports Mix
- West Ham vs Aston Villa – Live on BT Sport
For Bayliss, who is also collaborating with her opposite numbers at BBC Sport and with the unit managers at CTV, things have gone well up to this point. But she is quick to point out that the last few months have not been all plain sailing.
“It’s gone amazingly well,” she says. “For a new set-up for us, everyone has been surprised how smoothly it went. The thing we’ve all battled with is the relentless nature of the fixtures. There have been no breathers. It’s been back-to-back games since the re-start.”
The team will finally get a break after Sunday. And then thoughts will start to turn to 2020-21, which should kick off on or around 12 September.
Before then, there is the small matter of those eight live broadcasts.
“It’s been a great season,” concludes McGinty. “Everybody off-screen and on-screen has been brilliant. Even in re-start, we’ve had some fabulous nights. I just want a strong show [on Sunday]. But to deliver a strong show, we need a storyline. It’s up to the teams to deliver on the pitch for us and give us some excitement and drama that we’ll enjoy delivering to our customers.”
“If we leave on Sunday night, having ticked all the boxes, I will enjoy a quiet beer.”
“We’ve got a lot of crew at a lot of venues so we are hoping for clean shows with no technical difficulties and everyone being in the right place at the right time,” adds Bayliss who is confident things will go to plan thanks to the pre-planned rig days.
For Roxburgh, the success of Sunday comes down to ensuring that every person who wants or needs content, gets it.
“We’re in a multi-platform [world],” he says. “We’ve got our own programming here at Sky so we need to tick the box that this goes out. We’ve then got to tick the box that we provide the right things for the World Feed. Everybody wants our augmented audio and Sky crowd. That has been a massive success. We’ve got to make sure that works. And then we’ve got to make sure our Premier League clips piece works. As well as doing it for the UK, we provide that for the world. We have to tick that box as well. If we leave on Sunday night, having done all that, I will enjoy a quiet beer.”
The Premier League season concludes on Sunday 26 July with all games kicking off at 4pm UK time