Athletics can arguably be held up as the one true globally inclusive sport. At August’s 14th IAAF World Championships in London, 3,300 representative athletes are competing for medals.
These track and field stars herald from over 200 countries as far and wide as Benin, Comoros, Macedonia and French Polynesia, as well as the established athletics nations of the USA, Jamaica and the UK.
Needless to say, with so many contrasting eyes on the sport and consumer media tastes changing so quickly, a consistently high level of broadcast and production standards is a must. With this in mind, the IAAF took the decision this month to partner with British-based news and content provider ITN Productions to form a joint venture for host broadcasting and media production of the sport’s major events.
The new company, which is expected to officially commence operations in January next year, will develop broadcast and production capabilities for the IAAF that can be used by local organising committees around the world.
Alastair Waddington, director of sport at ITN Productions, clarifies how the new endeavour will work, explains what the company will bring to the table as host broadcaster, looks at the evolution of broadcasting and considers how its centralised productions will interact with emerging OTT and digital platforms.
SportsPro: What can you tell us about the new venture between ITN Productions and the IAAF?
Alastair Waddington: It is the culmination of a public tender process that has been running since mid-May, when the IAAF advertised their desire to look for a joint venture partner. We were one of a number of companies to put ourselves forward.
Right from the start, we have shared a vision of what a joint partnership might look like. Essentially, what it looked like for us was the IAAF trying to take control of its principal product and create a consistency of product both in the stadium and on the screen.
When you have a sport that moves around the world and is contested in different venues, having some sort of consistency running through it is quite an attractive proposition.
What do you think that you will add to the joint venture add as the host broadcaster?
For me, the key thing is to not just think about being the host broadcaster.
One of the reasons that we are going to work well together is that ITN Productions offers a whole range of activity. For instance, at the IAAF Congress, which has just taken place in London, we made 13or 14 short films. Not one of those films were made by our sports division - they were in fact made by our production team or by our industry news team.
At ITN, we have a breadth of activity that covers outside broadcast, host broadcasting, live television, magazine programming, documentaries, short-form, digital, ad production and branding content.
Alastair Waddington, director of sport at ITN Productions
OTT and digital platforms are widely perceived to be the future of broadcasting. What is ITN doing to make sure that it is on point with these new media platforms?
We are effectively a content creation factory for global athletics so the distribution of the content is not really our business. What is our business is to make the content relevant to where it is being distributed but not whether it is going to be on traditional broadcast, OTT or mobile phones. However the sport of athletics is being consumed, our job is to create appropriate content that technically works for those areas of activity.
Will you be planning to use new modes of camera such as drones to improve the content creation for IAAF events?
We used drones when we did the IAAF World Relays in the Bahamas in April. The use of drones is clearly dependent on where you are operating, as well as the local aviation and health and safety laws. There are all sorts of regulations on the use of drones at live sporting events that vary all over the world.
Will we look at technological advances? Yes. One of the purposes of having the same people produce athletics week in, week out is to develop an editorial level of consistency and innovation that works particularly for the sport of track and field. I am not going to sit here now and say that we are going to do X, Y and Z because we have only been in the job for three days. Our first job is to sit, listen, and observe.
We [along with the IAAF] share a view of athletics that it has been produced in a very similar fashion for 30-odd years, both in the stadiums and on the screen.
What did you feel that the previous host broadcaster did well and what, in your opinion, did or did not work?
I don’t think that it is as simple as that. It goes much deeper than what the host broadcaster has and has not done in the past.
It is really about how this join-up works. Previously, the promoters put on an event, and then invited a host broadcaster in to point some cameras at the action, and the content goes out on the television. Whereas the ambition of this collaboration is to have the whole plan joined up right from the get-go.
It is not about being critical about what has come before; in fact, some of the output has been absolutely fantastic. I am sure that the coverage of the 2017 World Championships will be brilliant. I would say that it has been fantastic despite the way that it has been organised.
We hope to add more consistency and a better transfer of knowledge, and really create a group of people that think about athletics the whole time who will get to know the idiosyncrasies of the various runners and the tracks.
Usain Bolt laps up the attention of the collective media at his final IAAF World Championships
Have you taken influences from any other sports that you think are broadcasting impressively?
Having an established sole broadcaster happens in the States and in a number of other sports. Sometimes sports fight their own economic battles and one of the things that they want to do is to have a consistency of programme that they can sell to sponsors and fans.
Therefore, having control over your own coverage is a route that a number of federations have gone down and others are looking at. For instance, the curling federation, which is perceived to be one of the smaller global governing bodies, has a form of centralised production. It is on a much smaller scale than Premier League Productions but it is what it is.
I suspect, moving forward, the federations having control of their own output will become increasingly important.
How important is it to the evolution of broadcasting to have successful global, photogenic stars such as Usain Bolt?
Ultimately, we feel this partnership is all about storytelling. One of the things that has changed dramatically is that the athletes of today are increasingly in charge of their own personalities and brands.
There are opportunities to be part of a social media explosion. They are becoming increasingly aware of their own abilities to influence their own fanbase. Sports like athletics need to realise that they have some very cool young people competing in the sport, in front of a cool young audience.
What would represent a successful partnership between the IAAF and ITN?
Success for me would be that we work together as a one and realise this shared vision. The vision is that the coverage of athletics and the athletes is able to generate the kind of level of interest that attracts new, younger fans.
If we can achieve that in the next five to seven years - or however long it takes - then that would be deemed as successful.