Op-Ed: Evolving Sports Broadcast Video Distribution Strategies

The value of live sports content boomed over the past year, with estimates from research firm Rethink TV suggesting global sports rights could grow in value by up to 75% between 2020 and 2024. The consumer appetite for live sports content can only correlate with this trend, and broadcasters and programmers must now begin evolving their workflows in response.

Tony Jones, Principal Technologist, MediaKind

While existing infrastructures, such as satellite, have offered reliable and robust frameworks for delivering and distributing sports content to date, the pressing need for greater flexibility and scalability has never been so stark. The increasing pressure of satellite capacity in some markets, notably in C-band, is only adding to the pressure to move to a more flexible and future-proof distribution methodology.

Now that efficient and future-ready strategies exist, the case is building to adopt alternative video distribution solutions that can deliver vastly improved flexibility at a compelling price point. Advanced compression efficiencies and the transition to cloud and IP-based technologies provide a clear pathway towards more agile and efficient distribution networks.

Modernizing Live Sports Distribution

Sports broadcasters and programmers can now tap into dynamic cloud-based solutions to break away from the restrictions of physical hardware and also to realize the significant cost efficiencies and rapidly advancing functionalities that these more modern software architectures deliver. Remote production and hybrid cloud environments, for example, minimize the need for dedicated equipment and production crews at event venues, reducing the costs associated with live sports production and opening up access to new remote production capacity. They take advantage of increasingly extensive networks from cloud service providers as well as traditional networks to provide wide-area network media connectivity.

Several actions can be taken by sports broadcasters and programmers looking to refresh their workflows and increase their infrastructures’ resilience. Moving to all-IP network-based distribution, or indeed a combination of IP distribution and satellite, poses one credible alternative that has already been tried and tested with major national networks. This can provide multiple benefits, well beyond just being a replacement for satellite.

MediaKind demonstrated the value of such migrations last year, working alongside The Switch to support the 4K UHD HDR delivery of New England Sports Network’s (NESN) live sports content as it transitioned from satellite to IP. The project combined the latest video processing and content protection technology from MediaKind with The Switch’s high-performance fiber network, delivering cost savings and increasing NESN’s flexibility. MediaKind also collaborated with AWS Media Services to enable FOX Corporation to migrate its existing distribution network to a next-generation, satellite-based network, future-proofed for cloud-based IP distribution.

Using IP as the primary path for highly valuable and demanding live feeds, such as live sports, is tried and tested – and maintains the quality that is expected with traditional broadcast architectures. It is still possible that satellite might remain as a backup or act as an enabler for feeds to reach particularly inaccessible locations. However, broadcasters can eliminate – or at least significantly reduce – the use of satellite as a video distribution strategy.

Alleviating C-Band Spectrum Re-Allocation

C-band spectrum reclamation is also catalyzing the shift to the cloud and IP. While both consumers and businesses eagerly anticipate the new capabilities brought by the accelerating rollout of 5G, it is dependent on the availability of the C-band spectrum, which offers a desirable balance of reach and bandwidth. Progressively, more C-band spectrum is being allocated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for mobile use, and the success of government auctions around the world shows the intensity of demand. There was certainly plenty of investment in the C-band spectrum by US telcos in the recent FCC auction.

While satellite has been the most popular approach to video program distribution to date, several options are available to make the transition away from C-band and towards more reliable and future-proofed systems. Whether staying on satellite, moving to all-IP, or a combination of both, the ability to use lower bitrates is beneficial. By leveraging modern encoding standards such as HEVC and, in the future, VVC, broadcasters can enable significant spectrum efficiencies by reducing the bitrate needed for the same video service quality where satellite remains in use.

A Solution to Fit Every Need

There are several approaches broadcasters and programmers can take to modernize these systems. However, an effective and robust solution requires understanding the existing architectures used for these systems. Evolving a video distribution system is a large-scale exercise. It involves complex, careful and multi-faceted considerations of both the end-state and transitional needs: maintaining a fully functional system through all of the migration steps is business-critical.

Media formats and workflows will continue to evolve, and broadcasters and programmers must find solutions that, once deployed, will enable them to navigate each step of the journey with confidence. The prospects for broadcasters and programmers are immense, and the opportunities are ripe to evolve and grow technology infrastructures so that they are more flexible and operationally efficient.

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