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  • Dan Tunna

Sports media in the new normal

The following article is based on a conversation with Saket Dhandhania, Director - Alliances at DreamSetGo and is reproduced from LinkedIn.

What were some of your observations with the return of Bundesliga this weekend?

First and foremost, it is great to see live sport return. Let’s hope that there are no new COVID-19 cases as a result of this weekend’s games and that provides confidence to other European leagues that it is possible to finish some of the remaining domestic seasons safely. The most obvious observation from watching some of the games, is just how much live sport is reliant on fans to create an atmosphere and a spectacle. You simply can’t recreate that emotional connection between players and fans by artificial means, as much as the Borussia Dortmund players tried at the end of their game! That said, after such a long absence, sport without fans - in the short term - is better than no sport at all. I am sure many of the anti-viral measures will remain in place until there is a vaccine, and there is no definitive timeline on when that might be so some changes may be here for the mid-to-long term, if not forever.

Borussia Dortmund players celebrate their victory over Schalke with their absent fans. © DFL

What are your thoughts on the new sports world that we are about to enter, and some predictions for the future of sports media?

The way we produce, deliver, consume and share content is constantly evolving. Leagues and rights holders will speed up investment in DTC platforms, while continuing to diversify their distribution across OTT, Pay-TV, FTA and social media platforms.

Personalisation and customisation will continue to develop as all media owners try and optimise consumer experiences and drive advocacy. If the fan is not truly at the centre of any service or proposition, then it will more than likely fail.

As NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said: “The next generation not only expects the product to conform to their schedule, they want to mould the product to conform to what it is they want to consume.”

To that end, data will continue to be a priceless commodity. Media owners that have the granularity to understand their customers’ needs and wants will have a huge competitive advantage.

I think it is safe to predict there will be further merger and acquisition as traditional media companies fight for market share against newcomers. In recent times we’ve seen AT&T acquire Time Warner, Disney take over 21st Century Fox and Comcast purchase Sky.

The sports rights market remains incredibly fragmented and there could be some opportunistic consolidation, taking advantage of those sports media companies that are overexposed.

It will be fascinating to see how COVID-19 impacts sports rights valuations. There are competing arguments as to whether the increasing number of players in the market will continue to drive up valuations, or whether we are reaching a ceiling, which has now been lowered by the financial implications of the Coronavirus.

Finally, the podcasting phenomenon will continue to grow. We’ve seen big investments made by Spotify, Google and others, and listenership generally is on the rise. With an increased focus on tech development to assist in accurate measurement, more and more advertisers will be tempted into this space.

SVT helped pioneer the concept of remote production in 2012 for coverage of the London Olympics. In 2019, we witnessed some ground-breaking remote production for the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. What are some of the challenges with remote production according to you?

From my recent experience with Discovery/Eurosport - who have made a significant investment in remote cloud-based production solutions - there is no doubt this can have transformational benefits for broadcasters, especially in a live event setting.

The ability to centralise resources and reduce the number of people on site – a factor brought into sharper focus due to the current climate – brings long-term cost savings and ensures greater sustainability.

Remote production can also have a big impact on viewing experience by reducing latency and, if broadcasters are prepared to re-invest savings in additional production services with more cameras, more on-site positions and enhanced on-screen technology, delivering more content overall.

The days of having big productions teams on-site could be numbered.

Connectivity remains the major obstacle for many broadcasters considering moving live productions away from the event venues. The bandwidth required to process the footage coming from multiple cameras in high-resolution video formats to the cloud is significant and the robustness of the network is hugely important in the delivery of high-quality content. The increasing deployment of 5G networks can’t come quickly enough for the broadcast industry.

Clubs and broadcasters are reportedly discussing solutions like in-game interviews, simulated crowd noise through PA systems, virtual watching parties, change of camera angles, etc. to enhance the viewing experience as live sport begins in empty arenas. Which of these do you see actually being implemented? What other fan engagement initiatives can clubs and broadcasters explore?

On one hand it’s the perfect time to experiment with new production technology as it’s a controlled environment without fans. However, the restrictions currently in place regarding the number of people in attendance at live games means that we are unlikely to see many innovations trialled, in the short term at least. Perhaps as we get to the final few games played behind-closed-doors and if restrictions are relaxed this will become an option.

Having watched the opening Bundesliga games, the atmosphere is definitely a problem for many viewers, so maybe we could see some artificial enhancements provided by broadcasters to help recreate the sensation of a sell-out crowd.

I would expect viewing events to become extremely popular while fans are not able to attend matches. This will be helped by the fact that so many people are now using Houseparty, Zoom and other group video chat providers on a daily basis. I would expect to see leagues and clubs create content and engagement opportunities by hosting ‘official’ viewing parties where they integrate some form of commentary and use club legends and influencers to interact with fans during games.  

Jurgen Klopp surprises Liverpool fans via Zoom.

What are some of the things that broadcasters can learn from this Covid crisis?

I think the Coronavirus will force many broadcasters to accelerate a lot of the remote production solutions they’ve been planning to integrate. I read that BT Sport delivered nine concurrent live Bundesliga matches on Saturday with only 10 staff on-site, previously they would have had between 50 or 60. That shows you how much more sustainable a remote model can be and gives an idea to the type of cost savings that can be made.

Formula 1 has successfully pivoted to its esports offering during the lockdown period.

In much the same way that COVID-19 has accelerated remote production development, I think it has been a tipping point for esports to go truly mainstream from a distribution perspective. We’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of esports collaborations and competitions hosted by clubs, rights owners and broadcasters as a means to engage fans and create live content for mainstream channels. You can see how certain sports/rights owners that have global gaming titles and an established esports infrastructure, such as Formula 1, football via FIFA 2020, the NFL and NBA, have been real winners in this space. I think esports and gaming will continue to complement live sports coverage as the key stakeholders see the true value and audience it can bring to their platforms. This could be at the expense of the airtime currently reserved for second tier-sports and that will be a real worry to many federations.

A third area I think broadcasters and sports owners will change their approach in the future will be the attitude to virtual events. Taking the NFL Draft as an example, this is a cultural event in the US that has been developed over decades in to a made-for-TV spectacle. Coronavirus forced the NFL in to hosting a virtual event and then they reach a record 55 million viewers, at a fraction of the cost and delivered in a far more sustainable manner. As technology and connectivity improves, all broadcasters will look at what events can be hosted virtually.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell conducted the first round of Thursday’s NFL draft from the basement of his home. © AP

Finally, The Last Dance - ESPN’s epic Michael Jordan docu-series - could not have been timed better. It’s cleaned up on the ratings front as sport-starved fans have flocked to relive Jordan’s greatness (t more thoughts on this here. ESPN deserve a lot of credit as they have been pioneers in unscripted sport formats since they launched their 30 for 30 series more than 10 years ago. Many other broadcasters have turned to archive footage in the last few weeks, simply re-playing old games and tournaments, but documentaries are editorially rich, timeless and can be watched multiple times. They are also much cheaper to produce than live sport or scripted shows, which means I think we’ll see a rise in popularity in a post-Coronavirus world.

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