Op-Ed: Why Distributed Production of Live Sports Has a Bright Future

The way sports events are produced and delivered has seen unprecedented evolution in the last 18 months as leagues, broadcasters and other live content creators have been forced to adapt. The result has been more agile and streamlined live production workflows than ever. Sports rightsholders have had to adjust to having minimal or even no onsite personnel for live games while making home working a reality for many crew. This radical shift has led to an entirely new approach: the ‘distributed production’ model for capturing and producing live sports. The pandemic-induced reliance on remote and cloud-based production tools has made the rapid adoption of distributed production a common practice for live sporting events across an array of scenarios, opening up new opportunities.

Building on remote production innovation

Distributed production models empower media companies and other sports rightsholders to embrace more creative approaches and broaden the scope of their live sports coverage. In doing so, they can redefine the way fans experience and engage with their content.  Technology has undoubtedly driven this evolution, recalibrating the mindset taken by live sports content producers. What’s more, the need to drive down production costs while guaranteeing high-quality live content adds further incentive to using remote and cloud-based methods. What’s clear is that, as the demand for live content grows and rights fees soar, the ability to get more out of the coverage of each sports event becomes more critical. The fact is the distributed production model offers a compelling and flexible way of reliably delivering more high-caliber content while controlling costs.

Sports rightsholders were already becoming well-versed in the benefits of remote production for live events of all types when the pandemic hit. But COVID has further underlined the value, efficiency, and flexibility of the remote approach as it emerged as a lifeline for many leagues and rightsholders whose operations were – and in some cases continue to be – hampered by restrictions on onsite production teams. Above-the-line crew, including directors, editors, and production staff, could easily work from a remote master control room with a limited number of camera operators and technical staff onsite, thus reducing travel and physical contact.

The next evolution in this technology emerged in the form of cloud-based production, which has become an invaluable supplement to existing remote production workflows. It expands the horizons of programming options, including creating near-real-time social media highlights, delivery to streaming services, and the ability to spin up more shoulder programming and side-line feeds. It’s available as a flexible, on-demand ‘as-a-service’ offering, including remote IP-video contribution, production tools, and distribution. Cloud capabilities – from clipping and editing to graphics creation to real-time comms – enable the expansion of the remote production model to a new, fully distributed production workflow.

Tapping into a rich bank of production resources

The uptake of the distributed model within live production set-ups has been phenomenal, from bolstering main sports broadcasts with programming such as pregame and postgame shows to creating social media highlights to supporting full end-to-end production of extra games. Rightsholders can easily and quickly scale up to cover more events than ever with minimal up-front investment. The key for many sports content creators is that the distributed approach allows them to cherry-pick remote, cloud-based, and traditional mobile production elements to suit their needs and locations. They can now select the combination of tools that best serves the type and scale of the event they are covering.

A crucial bonus is that the distributed production approach is more time and cost-efficient as it minimizes crew travel between venues, remote studios, and control rooms. With just a laptop and internet connection, many in the production team can work from virtually anywhere. This reality becomes even more enticing when you consider the fact that there is a fantastic pool of premier freelancers available following widespread staffing cuts during the pandemic. Rightsholders have the chance to tap into the very best talent to produce, direct and present games at a top-tier level irrespective of where the event is located and whether the crew they want can travel there.

The ability to choose the best production talent, unhampered by the need to fly them to far-flung venues – along with tons of equipment – has unsurprisingly led to a wave of live production creativity. With significant cost savings, leagues, broadcasters and other rightsholders can do more with less. What’s more, they can invest in new dynamic content offerings that keep their audiences engaged and entertained for longer.

Distributed production of Stanley Cup social media coverage

Inspiring examples of creative uses of distributed production have been seen across the industry this past year. The NHL, for example, worked closely with The Switch to deliver an entire slate of social media programming for the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, powering live pregame social media content for 21 games that were aired on Twitter Live. Beginning on Twitter approximately 20 minutes before the opening face-off for key games, each show saw sports hosts build anticipation and excitement for the night’s coming hockey action, including betting odds and then run the opening minutes of the game live while promoting the live broadcast on the Leagues’ rightsholders…a win-win for all!

The Switch produced the show from its Burbank and New York production facilities, where recording, clipping, editing and distribution of the live feeds took place. MIMiC, The Switch’s Cloud Video Services platform, provided low-latency cloud-based communications tools to connect the remote talent, announcers, graphics operators and show producers. The workflow linked crews from Long Island, Burbank, New York, Chicago and Brooklyn, enabling them to coordinate the production in real time.

The project helped ensure the NHL’s Playoff coverage was fun, insightful and engaging for hockey fans as excitement about each game built.  The project enabled the NHL to tailor highly interactive content for its fans on Twitter, keeping them informed and entertained in the run-up to key playoff match-ups and finals games.

No going back: distributed production of live sports here to stay

Enabling greater creativity in the production and delivery of live sports coverage through remote and cloud techniques was not invented during the pandemic but it was certainly proven and advanced during the crisis. Indeed, the reliability and cost-efficiency of remote, cloud and now distributed production have been put into practice with amazing results. The upshot is rightsholders now have the advantage of creating bespoke workflows that work for each type and size of production. And this new production menu has opened a whole range of opportunities for anyone producing live sports content in future.

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