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‘This is only the tip of the iceberg’: Going inside BT Sport’s AR-driven content plan

Ever since sport’s hiatus earlier this year, rights holders have been looking for innovative ways to engage fans shut out from stadia. SportsPro speaks with BT Sport’s Jamie Hindhaugh and EE’s Sam Kemp to discuss how mixed reality and 5G technologies are transforming the sports entertainment experience.

24 November 2020 Steven Impey

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In the space of nine months, or thereabouts, the face of sports broadcasting has rapidly shifted to blend with the harsh reality. First came sport’s coronavirus-enforced postponements in mid-March, and then the prolonged period of “classic repeats”.

By late May, rights holders had adapted their setup to produce sports programming remotely as live events returned behind closed doors. By the end of the summer, the innovators who helped put sport back onto screens sat down to discuss what ideas were worth keeping.

Ahead of English soccer’s resumption in June, domestic Premier League rights holder BT Sport was among several linear subscription TV networks to introduce “shared viewing” to its digital offering, catering to fans forced to watch from home as stadia echoed in their absence.

Since then, as mixed reality technologies and virtual conferencing have enhanced the way sports properties can engage with online audiences, the UK broadcaster has introduced new innovations that could change the dynamic of sports entertainment forevermore.

Among the network's innovations, BT Sport has launched its new Match Day Experience, delivered in collaboration with EE’s new 5G network, which has thus far provided new augmented reality (AR) features during the network’s live Premier League coverage, including real-time and augmented match statistics. In addition, fans also have access to a 360-degree viewing experience – built and deployed in collaboration with Tiled Media and Deltatre – that gives them control of in-stadium cameras.

BT Sport subscribers can tailor their own augmented reality (AR) graphics during live coverage via Manager Mode

Other innovations include Stadium Experience, developed in partnership with London-based Visualise, which allows users to take virtual stadium tours via the BT Sport app, taking them inside team dressing rooms, dugouts, trophy rooms and the tunnel area.

BT also continues to integrate its Watch Together function into its live coverge. Developed earlier in the year with support from social viewing specialists Sceenic, the platform is available via Apple TVs for EE customers whose package includes a ‘large screen access’ add-on.

“All of this was built in development for after lockdown but is relevant during lockdown,” explains BT Sport chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh, walking SportsPro through some of the innovative functions now available via the BT Sport app. “This is about looking at the opportunities around 5G and being able to engage with our audiences that are normally hard to connect to.

“It’s absolutely poignant because it’s about giving people that matchday experience that they are either missing or can’t go to watch with their friends.”

The challenge, Hindhaugh goes on, is to distinguish between what is genuinely going to enhance the viewing experience and ideas that seem appealing from the outset, but may seem unnecessary or not live up to expectations.

“None of the products are gimmicky,” he insists. “I hope you agree that all of them give you something that replaces the fact you can’t physically be there. I think that they are all credible products and they are all future-looking.

“I think that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we are able to do here, collectively – both for our audiences and also our own production.

“Combined with our brilliant remote 4K HDR [programming] and, alongside the [mobile] features that we now have in place, I think it’s a phenomenal offering. We don’t over-index on these things either. What this is about is augmenting the fan experience.”

As more people purchase 5G-enabled devices in the coming years, Sam Kemp, EE’s products and devices technology director, says that the fifth generation wireless technology will present the “key that enables us to unlock doors” to advanced live and augmented viewing experiences, and ultimately support more users on the BT Sport app.

“That’s the magic I see of BT Sport, BT, and EE all being in the same group umbrella,” he says. “We have these incredible levels of innovation in BT Sport and have really been able to leverage and use those new enhancements on the EE side with our wireless network and that, of course, means 5G.

“That has given us the freedom and flexibility to look into services that, [while] it isn’t necessarily the case they won’t work on 4G, you just get a much better experience using 5G technology. In terms of the rollout, these features have, of course, been stitched and embedded into our BT Sport application, but early feedback is that it’s going incredibly well.”

BT Sport first announced its raft of new mobile features days after the rollout of EE's new 5G-enabled iPhone 12 handset last month, and were debuted via the iOS platform on 24th October for BT Sport's live coverage of the Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham United.

Kemp says that there has been “twice the amount of uptake” in EE’s BT Sport subscriptions in recent weeks, citing the “incredible numbers of people” adopting BT Sport’s new features as a driver for the customer uptick.

“To Jamie’s point, we are trying to switch the dial from a ‘gimmick’ to something useful,” Kemp continues. “With all of our individual partners, all in their own rights and bundled together, gives you this differentiated, immersive viewing experience in sport.

I think that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we are able to do here, collectively – both for our audiences and also our own production

Jamie Hindhaugh, BT Sport's chief operating officer

“I think our customers are really resonating with that and are seeing our products as a really useful dial change on that sporting experience. We’re just as excited now as ever to see what the next iteration of this might look like and how we advance the roadmap from here onwards.”

To furnish the Match Day Experience, BT Sport is also tapping Stats Perform and Second Spectrum, the Premier League’s respective statistics and tracking partners, which joined forces in September ahead of the 2020/21 season to build what they describe as the ‘most comprehensive and robust’ soccer data stream.

As part of that collaboration, a newly created insights feed includes a wide range of metrics and data points, including distance between the closest defender and the goal to an attacking player, as well as shot velocity, passing options, and off-the-ball movements, which all form part of BT Sport’s new AR offering.

“We’ve been in the business of collecting live event data for many years, and what we’ve seen is broadcasters having the ability to visualise data differently as the technology advanced,” explains Ross Tanner, Stats Perform’s vice president for global accounts. “I think what our data enables us to look at is what data metrics are interesting and how they can be [adopted] by visualisation companies

“We’ve invested hugely into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to identify what interesting metrics are on the field of play and how fans can actually resonate with them and share them with friends in particular features like BT Sport has developed here. For us, it’s really looking at what we think is right for the market and at ways we can improve that.”

BT Sport's Watch Together feature allows multiple viewers to watch live content virtually via a single portal

Paul Hunt, an executive director for Second Spectrum, concurs, though he says that while “tracking data has been around for a long while”, there is room to grow demand “beyond the performance space”. For example, users now have the ability to overlay personalised data graphics to live coverage via a new Manager Mode within the BT Sport app.

“Our machine not only watches the sport, but can also translate the language of sport to the coach,” he goes on. “So, you know that, when a pass has been played in a build-up phase against an organised defence, that descriptive detail has only been accessed by coaches before.

“I do think there is more hunger among audiences to understand the game and there has never been more relevance and prominence in football before. Fans want to watch their team play and to win handsomely, but they also want to understand the philosophy of managers and how they play the game. That’s what the stats are able to tell us and allows for that greater engagement for either the casual or diehard fan.”

These innovations are not only being introduced to live soccer broadcasts from the Premier League. BT Sport’s Match Day Experience is also being deployed across its coverage of the Uefa Champions League, European soccer’s top club competition, as well as English rugby union’s Premiership, which began its new 2020/21 season on 20th November.

While Premiership clubs, like those in other sports, are still unable to welcome fans to stadia, BT Sport has struck a deal to give club season ticket holders access to every game as part of the broadcaster’s subscription package. Though a separate offiering, it could present BT Sport with an opportunity to expose more subscribers to a new way of watching the sport.

The view from the BT Sport television platform during a Premier League clash between Sheffield United and Leeds United

“We’ll be looking at these products across all the different sports, and we will have a pick’n’mix effect dependant on where it absolutely enhances the viewing experience,” Hindhaugh continues.

“We are looking at rugby, which is a really interesting one because it stops and starts a lot more. Therefore, there is a real opportunity around how [fans] engage with content, both to understand what it’s for and with more time to do so.

“That’s where I think you will see different flavours of what we’ve developed here. We’ve got the right partners and it’s a fantastic start, but I think everyone is itching to look at how we enhance and develop these with the opportunities that are ahead.”

In addition to cultivating new experiences for viewers, Hindhaugh says the broadcaster’s innovations will also serve a purpose for BT Sport’s presentation teams, too, giving its on-air talent a unique way to engage with audiences beyond the linear format and by actively encouraging fans, for example, to access the augmented Stadium Experience portal from whichever game they may be presenting at the time.

“Rights holders will always be supportive where they can showcase their rights in a better way and increase engagement,” Hindhaugh expands. “What I would say is that our reputation for partnerships is not only with the [technology] partners, but also with the rights holders and our approach to innovation is really well recognised.

“I love the Second Spectrum stuff because that could change analysis and how people curate their own analysis – it allows you to become the expert. It’s not only for our audiences but it’s also for our broadcast opportunities which will then again change the opportunity to what we deliver to our audiences, all underpinned by 5G.”

SportsPro speaks with BT Sport’s Jamie Hindhaugh and EE’s Sam Kemp to discuss how mixed-reality and 5G technologies are transforming the sports entertainment experience.


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