Sky Sports has been celebrating its 25th anniversary in April but the UK’s dominant pay-TV broadcaster faces bigger challenges than ever before. SportsPro goes behind the scenes with the upstart that became the established force, and still continues to change.
By Eoin Connolly. Photographs by Graham Fudger.
Even sport has Monday mornings.
It is the start of the last full week in the 25th year of Sky Sports. In April – on the 20th, to be precise – it celebrated a quarter of a century on the air, a period in which it has brought unprecedented noise and bravado to the business of showing sport on British television. Yet just now in the production studios at its expansive headquarters, past the smart reception, down the corridors lined with portraits of staff from every department, it is eerily subdued.
The current home of the UK’s dominant pay-TV broadcaster was finished in 2011, a landmark in the evolution of a free-spending upstart that, somewhere along the way, became the established force in its territory. The entire organisation is housed here; the managing director is as likely to wander into an on-site café as a runner on errands. But it is also a statement of intent, the corporate image rendered in steel and glass. That much is projected to the viewer at home through the programmes made here.
“There are brand assets that mean that when you switch on and you put on a Sky Sports show, it looks and feels like a Sky Sports show,” says Steve Smith, the director of Sky Sports production. “You know it’s a Sky Sports show.”
That much is true even when the studios are empty. In the Vic Wakeling Studio, named for the long-serving former managing director of Sky Sports, only one programme is made. Soccer Saturday is the byproduct of insatiable Sky-era demand for live content and England's longer standing 3pm Saturday blackout of TV coverage. It is the archetypal show that shouldn’t work but does, with presenter Jeff Stelling wringing hours of compelling television from a rotating cast of variously excitable ex-professional footballers, all watching games the viewer at home is not allowed to see. With dozens of matches in play at once, Stelling must also throw to reporters at grounds across the country and manage a steady flow of information, all of which he does with a showman’s twinkle. His reward for this weekly masterclass in broadcasting is his own chair, his first name scrawled on the back in marker pen.
Down the hall is the main cricket studio. Sky Sports has spent millions locking its competitors, and free-to-air viewers, out of the market in the UK’s second sport, but has rewarded its customers with a similarly lavish outlay on production. The hub of its coverage looks cavernous on air, with room for a giant touchscreen and a practice net for demonstrations of batting technique. In reality, it probably occupies as much space as the international dressing rooms with which Sky’s pundits were once more accustomed.
It will come to life again later in the day; a small band of former players gathering around a desk pre-fitted with microphone sockets to present Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket. The set is dressed in the colours of the sport’s premier franchise jamboree. A week or so earlier it wore a different outfit for the ICC World Twenty20, but the look holds fairly constant.
Some studios are left empty for modular construction but sets have also been built for two of the network’s biggest draws, Saturday Night Football and Monday Night Football. Still, not everything has been moved on campus. Super Sunday, the flagship soccer programme and a mainstay of the Sky Sports schedule since the Premier League debuted in 1992, still airs from the stadium of each home team.
"There are brand assets that mean that when you switch on and you put on a Sky Sports show, you know it’s a Sky Sports show."
“We made a decision in the previous cycle of the Premier League – and we’re looking at our plans for next season, currently – that we wanted to try and create different feel shows: Super Sunday being on site, Monday Night Football being the analysis and tech, Saturday night having more of a studio back here feel,” Smith explains. “And we’ll re-evaluate that as we look forward to next season with the launch of the next Premier League cycle.”
The facilities also allow for a range of transmission techniques. A rare live broadcast being produced on Monday morning comes from the world of men’s tennis – the opening skirmishes of an ATP World Tour 1000 series event from Monte Carlo. Usually, a Sky Sports commentator would be in the studio, ready to talk over the footage being relayed from Monaco. But he is ill, so the English-language world feed is being used instead.
Smith has been with Sky Sports for 22 years, joining as an editorial assistant on soccer comedy show Soccer AM for the launch of Sky Sports 2 in 1994. He moved into live soccer broadcasts, becoming a director three years later and staying in that role for 15 years before stepping up to his current job.
“I’m responsible for the content that goes out across six of the seven Sky Sports channels,” he says. “I have overall responsibility. Andy Cairns is the executive editor of Sky Sports News, so he answers to Barney Francis, the managing director. I’m part of Barney’s executive team. We’re going through a change at the moment which means I take responsibility for the Sky Sports digital content as well. And I have a team of heads of sport who work on each of the individual sports that report into me, and they run their teams and I have the overview of what we do.”
He points to two technological changes as being pivotal in broadcast production over his two decades with Sky. The first was the switch to digital transmission, which Sky did in 1998, dramatically expanding its array of channels and bringing in services like interactive TV. The second was the switch to high definition, and the subsequent transition to a “tapeless workflow”.
“Basically, the storytelling side of it is similar,” he says, “it’s just that the technology enabled us to do it better and quicker, and given us more opportunities. I think that’s where the digital landscape in the future is about always just sharing that content.”
Smith is talking to SportsPro in a smart restaurant on the Sky campus, one of a smattering of eateries, shops and amenities on site. They are for the benefit of the small army of Sky employees who snake out of nearby train stations, guiding the irregular visitor through concrete west London suburbia to their destination. Few staff would complain about access to such venues but they are a reminder, too, that work goes on here round the clock.
Beyond the Skills Studio suite – where around 57,000 schoolchildren have played broadcaster in lessons run since September 2012 – is the one part of the on-air operation that never falls silent. Where live production studios often exude a quiet urgency, the Sky Sports News HQ set sits amid the restless bustle of a bullpen. Reporters share desk space with researchers, planners and technical staff, and the chatter hits a pitch typical of any open-plan office.
“The working environment is one of urgency, like any newsroom,” says Jim White, a Sky Sports News HQ anchor and one of the most recognisable faces on the channel, even in his civvies in a staff canteen. “But the immediacy of Sky Sports News means that as soon as you know something, you can get it out there. It is the platform for breaking sports news.”
It has been a packed weekend of sport, one where the predictable has nudged up against the altogether less so, and much of it has been covered on Sky Sports channels. Leicester City have continued their unexpected but increasingly irresistible assault on the Premier League title. British heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua, as expected, has won a slender piece of the fractured world championship with a knockout win over Charles Martin. But the most surprising moment of the weekend was also the latest, with Jordan Spieth collapsing in a lead he had held for three days at golf’s Masters at Augusta, conceding the title to the unheralded Englishman Danny Willett.
“It can be hectic at times,” says Natalie Sawyer, another anchor and a frequent on-air partner of White. “When a story breaks that we haven’t seen coming, that’s sometimes the best time for us because that’s when the scripts’ go out the window and it’s all down to what we say, and we love that.”
Sitting with the rest of the team in the newsroom, Haydn MacKenzie is the planning editor of Sky Sports News. Reacting to stories like Willett’s, he says, is “the nature of what we do”.
“There’s a lot of experienced journalists who’ve done it for a long time,” he adds, “and know that any plan, any running order, any script is by its nature a dynamic document. And people are just in the business of doing a lot of work and then tearing it up and starting again. And, actually, that’s the fun bit, I have to say.”
But while there are staff monitoring developing stories like Willett’s “almost every minute of every day”, and while “on any given day, 70 per cent of what we do either changes or disappears on day of air”, long-range planning remains fundamental to the successful running of the channel.
“For something that’s going to be bureaucratically complicated, like an Olympics in Rio or a Fifa World Cup in Russia, we’ll start a full four-year cycle in advance,” MacKenzie reveals. “I mean, we’ve been looking at Russia in 2018 for a couple of years now. For something like the Joshua fight, as soon as we know that it’s on – that might be three months out, typically, for a boxing event, maybe four – we’ll start right there. And the starting place, generally, is: ‘What’s the onscreen talent going to look like?’”
A support team is put in place around that talent, as the schedule is plotted from day to day and then, a couple of weeks from air, hour by hour. “And then the day before that’ll come back to almost a minute-by-minute plan – but again, always with that caveat that the plan is dynamic,” MacKenzie says.
Since its launch in 1998, the news service has been drawn ever closer to the centre of what Sky Sports does. The result is that, by MacKenzie’s own admission, it now straddles a line between acting as a news source and a promotional outlet for other programming.
“And we think with our platform we can do both without compromising either,” he says.
The Sky Sports News team also work closely with their counterparts at Sky News, who will soon be moving into the same building to “create one production hub for the whole of the Sky family rather than being spread around the campus”. Resources are often shared – particularly in the aftermath of events such the Paris terrorist atrocities last November, when a Sky Sports outside broadcast truck in position at the Stade de France ahead of a weekend rugby match was made available to Sky News reporters in the city.
“If you looked on our diary this week you’d see probably three or four engagements between the two of us,” MacKenzie says, adding that the sports outfit have “been able to steal a lot of their best practice” on matters such as ensuring the safety of reporters.
MacKenzie also stresses that the news channel does give due coverage to events outside the Sky Sports rights portfolio. In recent weeks, he notes, it has followed Premier League clubs Liverpool and Manchester City on their respective adventures in the Uefa Europa League and Champions League – competitions for which rival BT Sport is the UK broadcaster. Sky Sports News will also send its biggest ever team to a foreign-based Olympic Games for Rio 2016.
For White, a great advocate for the value of a full contacts book, being part of a proper news organisation is significant. He cites a Guardian interview in which Sky Sports News HQ executive editor Andy Cairns said that journalism was “at the top of the agenda”.
“That heartened us enormously to hear that, just that reinforcement that it’s all about stories,” White says. “Our job, every single time we go on, is to tell somebody something they didn’t know before. That’s what we do.”
At the same time, the promotion of White, in particular, and Sawyer as the faces of the channel’s coverage of soccer’s transfer deadline day is something that both enjoy – if not nearly as much as the coverage itself. For other parts of the Sky Sports operation, meanwhile, the convergence of reportage and rights-based coverage can be hugely beneficial.
Anna Edwards is the producer of Sportswomen, a weekly magazine with a focus on women’s sport from grassroots to elite level. She is also the editorial lead for women’s sport on Sky Sports News HQ, which provides a useful source of publicity.
“We’re showing so much now that it’s a good opportunity to remind viewers that we’ve got the live netball, we’ve got women’s golf, we’ve got cricket coming up, and it’s also gives us the change to explore and develop those relationships with the governing bodies, like the ECB [England and Wales Cricket Board] and the FA [Football Association] and different bodies like that,” she says. “It helps us have the time and space to just broaden and explain things a bit more.”
Edwards also sees Sky as having a developmental role to play – not only through support for its own coverage of sports like netball, which the broadcaster is pushing hard this year, but across the board. That means keeping viewers of Sportswomen and Sky Sports News HQ abreast of the latest happenings in, for example, BT Sport-screened Women’s Super League soccer. Going beyond that, Edwards aims to make Sky Sports’ digital services a central hub for women’s sport.
Inevitably, social media also has a function in knitting together a community that has been historically underserved. “If you take the Sky Sports News account, for example, they’ve got millions of followers on that account,” Edwards says. “If they’re tweeting about the netball result or if they’re tweeting about the WTA [tennis] result, they’re providing a news service that isn’t just about men’s sport, and even if you’re just consuming it in that 140 characters, you know that result.”
Just as it has across the industry, digital media has profoundly changed the Sky Sports approach. For one thing, as MacKenzie points out, “there’s competition everywhere through digital platforms”, not least “because sports news has become so platform-agnostic”.
Sky Sports News has responded by putting its social media teams, quite literally, closer to its centre. Manning the live social media hub for the morning’s broadcasts, just a few feet from the main stage, is Jordan Halford. He is one of four full-time social media staff – three of whom are ‘social journalists’ with a fourth providing oversight – while two more of his colleagues work on a four-day basis and another three are freelance.
The rest of the team are elsewhere in the building on the ‘content-handling’ floor, working on the generation of social media output. The for-air role, particularly in the wake of stories like Willett’s Masters win, is very much about curation – collating the responses of Sky Sports viewers and other notable observers for the anchors, who can walk from their desks to present links from the social media hub.
The social media outfit consult regularly with the rest of the editorial team. With Sky Sports picking up ‘near-live’ Premier League clip rights from 2016/17, and becoming one of 20 worldwide partners of the Facebook Live project, social media is only going to become more important.
“You can get a story from Twitter quicker sometimes than if you ring up the club; it’s so there and then,” says Sawyer. “And we use that to our advantage now, because there are certain stories – even a club flying out to Germany in the Champions League, for example, we might not have a camera on them but their social media team will, so we can bring you those pictures.”
Technological innovation is a significant part of what is, after all, an offer that comes at a premium price to the consumer. According to Smith, ideas move fluidly between the various Sky Sports teams. This in turn has an influence on editorial decisions. He likes to tell the story of the “daylight touchscreen” – essentially a giant tablet device, fitted with a custom-made anti-glare surface so it could be taken into the paddock for Formula One coverage.
“You can get a story from Twitter quicker sometimes than if you ring up the club; it’s so there and then."
“We found that the drivers, especially in F1, loved talking about and analysing each different element of their lap, going through it,” he recalls.
This new touchscreen caught the attention of the cricket production team. “So they put it on a golf buggy because they needed to be able to drive it on and drive it off [the pitch], which then unlocked the cricket and gave [presenter] Ian Ward the tools to be at the boundary with the players as they come off at the end of the day,” he adds. “Again, the players are more comfortable with giving the insight because they have the video to deal with at their own fingertips.”
From there, the device made its way into the hands of the golf team as the Sky Cart – and became “fundamental to supporting the presentation” made in the process of a rights renewal. “Jason Wesley, who’s the head of golf, went to the USGA [United States Golf Association] and did a very impressive presentation about what we do with our Sky Sports golf and how we were looking to elevate it, which was an example of how we used the touchscreen,” Smith reveals.
Smith’s next challenges are in assessing the potential impact of ultra high-definition (UHD) and high-dynamic-range imaging (HDR) on Sky Sports’ output. He is also collaborating on a project that has drawn in different units of the larger Sky machine.
Formerly the head of production at Sky Movies, Neil Graham is now executive producer of the Sky VR project. He was an early convert to the new wave of virtual reality, keeping an eye on emerging startups and creating a documentary as test footage, some years ago now, on the set of The Hobbit films. The VR initiative has group-wide support, with Sky’s investment in cinematic VR pioneer Jaunt giving it early access to that company’s cameras and production technology.
“We could have waited,” says Graham. “There are a lot of broadcasters and other production companies who will wait for the technology to get there but I think it’s important for us to learn the rules and to help write the rules.”
Sport will likely become a cornerstone of any future Sky VR offering and, for now, it is providing a useful test bed in working out the “grammar” of VR filmmaking and broadcasting, as well as in finding the kind of gremlins that emerge in post-production. Already Sky VR has developed a 360-degree video that takes the viewer into the ring with Anthony Joshua for a workout, where the sheer size of the Watford man comes across in a manner that television cannot convey, while other clips take in ride-alongs with a Formula One car, and a walk through the paddock.
Test footage has been taken at soccer matches, already working to a markedly different template from the traditional broadcast. VR is widely held to be at an inflection point, with several new products coming to market now or later this year. Of course, for every mainstream breakthrough like HD there is a relative failure like 3D, where supply is pushed way out ahead of demand. Graham, however, is a firm believer in the potential of this new medium.
"As a whole," he says, "whether it's cycling or boxing or F1 or whatever it is, everyone is keen to try and capture the technology and do something with it rather than just feel like it’s a sideline.”
But all of that technology can only be used in the service of sports coverage, and the rights to some of that coverage have become expensive to acquire. Much has been made in the past 18 months of the UK£4.18 billion deal Sky signed to retain the bulk of the rights to the Premier League from 2016/17 to 2018/19. The Daily Mail, in particular, has made repeated reference to apparent ‘cost-cutting’ measures enforced by the move. Smith gives a nuanced response.
“What I’m always trying to do is think about where our customers value their money being spent most, which is why we’re constantly looking at how we support the bigger events, how we maximise reach with digital, what’s the right blend of support programming to go with it,” he says, noting that changes to broadcast output are often as much about reflecting viewer habits as anything else.
He adds: “I don’t think the two are directly related. The rights is a separate conversation in terms of the spend, but we think about how we treat the events for our audience – the size of the events, I would say.”
Nevertheless, the circumstances that led to that Premier League outlay – the domestic emergence of BT Sport, and the spectre of well-heeled international players like Discovery-backed Eurosport and BeIN Sports – serve as a looming reminder of what is now at stake for Sky Sports.
“I’m sure if you ask anyone around this building about competition,” says MacKenzie, “you know, the reason Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer got so good was because of each other. Both of their games had to evolve to counter the game that was facing them on the other side of the net. I think that we view competition in the same way.”
For his part, Smith argues that Sky’s entry “elevated sports broadcasting to another level”, which has driven up standards elsewhere. “I think what’s important is that we’re always continually challenging ourselves to change,” he says. He sees that hunger for constant improvement turned inwards as well.
“And I think one of the things it does,” he adds, “is develop a mentality within where production teams are challenging each other as well, so when they see good utilisation of technology in one sport it then branches out into other sports and leads to better editorial and better content, and now we’ve just got the platforms to share it on.”
White concurs. “If you’re comfortable with that, great,” he says of the constant trials presented to on-air talent. “If you’re not comfortable with that, get comfortable with it quickly.
“Because the industry changes all the time. You’ve got to change with it, and this place wants you to change with it. No question about that.”