Emirates Stadium

TV FC

Ahead of IBC 2011, the first of two features on broadcast markets looks at how teams are now using the technology directly.

Specialist sports broadcaster ESPN recently published research on audience responses to 3D programming. That for 'enjoyment' went from 65 per cent for a traditional/HD telecast to 70 per cent for one in 3D, but more importantly, that for 'presence' (the 'you are there' sensation) leapt from 42 per cent to 69 per cent.

Major sports depend heavily on TV rights. According to the latest DeloitteFootball Money League, Europe's 20 most financially powerful clubs earned '1.9bn ('1.65bn) from broadcasters in 2010. For 16 of the elite, they were the largest single source of income.

Football is merely the European trailblazer. Be it American football's NFL or basketball's NBA in the US, the Indian Premier League in cricket or the two rugby codes in both hemispheres, TV is the paymaster for these sports and many more.

In that light, enthusiasm for emerging 3D services is good news for club owners. Like HD so recently before it, 3D is another 'window' to which they can sell TV rights.

However, there are signs that it is exacerbating an old tension. It is the fear that the money teams make from broadcasting could actually result in a net loss because fans opt to watch at home rather than in the stadium. HD has already upped the ante here.

There is no question of sport kicking out'the cameras. Even if Fergie wanted it, the 'two worlds are too economically interdependent. Rather, the challenge is for stadium owners to – pun intended – raise their game over the matchday experience. Many are turning to the same technologies that are reshaping TV and also retailing.

Matchday matters

When the BBC launched 'Match of the Day' in 1964, it based much of the argument for creating the show around claims that it was''experimental' and would train staff to meet England's host-broadcaster obligations at the 1966 World Cup. Even then, a significant number of clubs tried to block its second season because they claimed the programme did reduce gates.

For almost 20 years, the BBC consequently agreed not to reveal which games would be shown each Saturday until after all the day's football had finished. But by the time the FA Premier League was launched by BSkyB in 1992, live football was more commonplace and the bigger English clubs had been lobbying hard for some kind of TV rights breakaway to 'maximize revenues' for several years.

Beyond the millions of pounds on offer, another factor made clubs more phlegmatic about Sky's demand for a large increase in the number of games shown. They were already upgrading stadia.

The 1989 Hillsborough Disaster saw 96'Liverpool supporters crushed to death against perimeter cages at the front of the Sheffield stadium's Leppings Lane terrace. This tragedy led to Lord Justice Taylor's recommendation, subsequently taken into law, that almost every UK football ground should be converted to all-seater.

In-the-ground experience

By 1992, football was undergoing a construction boom. As owners rebuilt stands or moved to new venues, they took the opportunity to improve facilities both around the pitch and in the concourses. Ultra-large displays appeared at even relatively modest stadia. Pie-and-Bovril kiosks were replaced by concessions operated by fast-food giants. Souvenir cabins became megastores.

Far from letting it depress attendances, the Premier League used Sky Sports as a showcase for a new in-the-ground experience and has continued to do so for almost 20'years. Other sports followed suit.

Now though, a new refurbishment and rebuilding cycle is in train. Beyond the fact that such upgrades are due, this comes back to boosting income. In the early days of the pay-TV boom, football saw each successive rights package double in value against the last. Given the recession and some inevitable saturation of pay-TV subscribers, that growth has slowed, although the costs of operating a leading club – particularly players' salaries – have not.

Add the fact that HD alone makes watching football from the sofa a much richer experience, and the clubs have had little option but to look hard at protecting and increasing matchday supporter spending. The fact that the early movers here'seem to be reaping rewards has encouraged the trend.

Under-achievers? Really?

The Premier League season ended in disappointment for Arsenal supporters. A title-run faded and the north London club lost in the final of the Carling Cup to Birmingham City. In terms of matchday revenues, however, Arsenal is undeniably winning. According to Deloitte, the club took in '114.7m in 2010, bettered only by Real Madrid and Manchester United.

Arsenal attributes much of its success to the development of the first HD streaming network within a sporting venue, one that it installed from the ground up when in 2006 it moved to a new home, the Emirates Stadium.

It has 459 LCD screens at various points in the venue and supersize screens as well as digital signage around the pitch, each receiving MPEG4 video over an in-house local area network and each one equipped with a Sony streaming receiver card that makes it individually addressable.

The club has installed its own HD control room. From here engineers can specify content for each of those screens, interspersing messages to promote concessions that are closest with video from a main feed. There is then a fully featured HD'production room, which can take source from outside broadcast trucks, signage players, RSS feeds, source decks and satellite.

Arsenal can thus run a fully featured in-house channel, though it then uses the same infrastructure for its outward-looking Arsenal TV channel on satellite and cable.

'By being able to create, distribute and present good, quality entertainment, Arsenal are steadily bringing a whole new dimension to watching football matches,' says Mark Grinyer, head of business development for 3D & sports at Sony Professional in the UK. 'Fans are spending longer at the stadium to watch the match and other entertainment.'

And how much longer? According to Adrian Ford, Arsenal's commercial director at the time of the installation: 'There's definitely been a change in culture at Arsenal'' fans are spending more time at the'stadium because the club is able to give them something quite special. It sees them come in an hour before the match starts, instead of five minutes.'

So, much of the money that once was spent in pubs or greasy spoons around its former home, Highbury Stadium, now goes into the club's coffers. The club also encourages fans to linger after the final whistle for a post-game show.

In 2010, Deloitte found that Arsenal's average matchday revenue had risen again from '3.7m to '4.2m.

Keen on ROI

'I think it's still more about making a return on these investments in themselves than simple customer retention, although the owners know that they do have to respond to what goes into the broadcast stream,' says Mike Arthur, general manager of sports and live events at Harris Broadcast, another of the TV technology companies most sought out for stadium and arena projects.

'Also there are differences based on the sport or the venue,' he adds. 'In the US, you get a lot more breaks in the NFL or NBA than you will in the Premier League. Soccer is a lot more free-flowing – if you stop for a foul, it's usually no more than five or six seconds. So, there are different models for how you might review plays or what material you're going to run in the stadium. And in Europe, if you've got a controversial incident, you're not allowed to replay it.'

Nevertheless, many core elements for any major broadcast technology installation today are much the same as for Arsenal's five years ago – but the scale is getting grander.

A Harris project at the brand new Amway Center in Orlando, Florida features 1,100 addressable IPTV screens and a full in-house HD control and play-out infrastructure. By contrast, while the Emirates has a 60,000 capacity, the Amway, home to the NBA's Orlando Magic franchise, holds 20,000.

There is also a dedicated wireless mesh network. 'You do have to be able to match not just the fan's visual expectations – and the Amway screens are 10X typical resolution – but you have their expectations for how content is distributed,' Arthur says.

There's an app for that

There's an app for everything now and live apps from sports teams are hugely popular. Whether at home or in the venue, the fan wants to tap his smartphone and get constantly updated information, particularly for those sports – be it baseball in the US or cricket in the UK – where statistics play a huge role during the game itself.

But, notes Arthur, you have to be cautious in differentiating what you do with the in-venue and the information-everywhere versions of those apps.

'A venue app can also have real-time traffic information or public transportation, and you can feed that to the displays as well,' he says. 'But you have got ideas coming forward like in-seat ordering and people forget a few things there. It might be possible to put in the technology infrastructure to take the orders, but do you have the people to make the deliveries? If a fan orders a hotdog and it arrives cold, that's not a happy fan.'

He sees a far stronger move towards the integration of 'looking in' and 'looking out' applications of the broadcasting infrastructure that venues are installing.

King content

Sporting teams historically provided camera positions, seats for the commentators, a press conference room, a TV interview area and a few appropriate sockets. That was then.

The Internet, teams' own dedicated channels and increasingly the depth of material provided in the venue itself means that more and more teams and clubs are becoming fully fledged content providers. All'the big clubs already have their own channels and video production teams.

'Perimeter signage, concourse signage, emergency venue information – those are all 'looking in', but if you are mixing that with interviews, analysis, highlights, you're obviously also going to use that for your own channel, 'looking out',' says Arthur.

This is where much of the ROI argument about these broadcast technology investments gets made. A lot of the same infrastructure can be used across both models; the payback comes two ways.

For the TV technology community, this means that a client in sports is today as attractive as, at least, a small standalone cable channel. Indeed, add a team's traditional broadcasting requirements to what it wants to improve and exploit the venue experience and it could be a much bigger sale.

For the teams, meanwhile, they hope that they are caught in a virtuous technological circle. HD and 3D provide an impetus for them to upgrade not just their venues but also their own channels. Then they can tap economies of scale that help them boost matchday revenues, an area where most believe they must reap better sales.

But what of the fan? Is he simply becoming a passive consumer, bombarded as much as he might be in a shopping mall? Arthur adds another note of caution. 'As we know, different sports have different cultures and there are different ways of watching the game. So, maybe you can do a lot with stats and other information in a ballpark, but I don't think the same would work in soccer. And it's always about being there and watching the action.

'The culture in Europe, especially, is really strong. So whatever you do, you mustn't forget that.' *

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