The summer of 2020 was meant to be a feast for the senses; a smorgasbord of sport centred on Tokyo’s Olympic and Paralympic Games in July and August, following soccer’s first multi-national Uefa European Championships, hosted by 12 different cities across the continent and beginning in June.
In the northern hemisphere, the summer season is traditionally served with a cool slice of Grand Slam tennis, too, and usually begins on Parisian clay at the end of May, before winding up on a humid, flood-lit September evening in New York.
In the UK, on 14th July 2019, fans were treated to a similar spread of sporting spectacles, all within the same 24 hours. It was a day that tore fans between watching Novak Djokovic’s five-set Wimbledon final victory over Roger Federer and England’s first-ever Cricket World Cup triumph, both held in London, while Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton also claimed a record sixth British Grand Prix title at Silverstone.
Though perhaps looked upon as a scheduling faux pas, in hindsight the occasion highlighted the ability for competing broadcasters to deliver coverage from concurrent major sporting events and still attract healthy viewership.
An estimated nine million tuned into the final moments of the BBC’s free-to-air (FTA) coverage of the Djokovic-Federer epic. Meanwhile, the Cricket World Cup climax drew an 8.3 million combined peak audience between pay-TV network Sky Sports and commercial FTA broadcaster Channel 4, which also attracted 2.8 million viewers for its Formula One coverage.
Those figures demonstrated the willingness of sports fans to tune into concurrent live content by utilising the second screen, and encapsulated the opportunity for both linear and digital to capture overlapping audiences in tandem.
The BBC's coverage from Novak Djokovic’s five-set Wimbledon final victory on 14th July 2019 drew circa nine million viewers
A year on – and only days out from what would have been the opening ceremony to the Olympic Games on 24th July – the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought much of the sporting calendar to its knees, has also forced an unprecedented backlog of events in the coming months.
In September, the rescheduled French Open tennis tournament is due to begin only a week after the climax to the US Open, which itself will go up against cycling’s postponed Tour de France, originally slated to start in late June. Similarly, next year’s rescheduled Olympic Games will culminate just six months before the Beijing 2022 winter edition takes place in China’s sprawling capital.
Not since 1992, when the Winter Games were held in the French alpine town of Albertville five months before the summer edition took place in Barcelona, have the two events fallen within such a close timeframe.
With a host of broadcast and advertising contracts deferred until 2021, the decision to postpone Tokyo 2020 has led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to shift its approach to both spectacles, and at a time when the threat of Covid-19 is still an ongoing concern.
Though the present health crisis could not have been foreseen – nor the headache it has caused for the wider sporting calendar – postponement of the Games does, however, open up potential new opportunities to enhance the Olympic broadcast delivery in 12 months’ time, and to draw on and sustain viewer interest garnered during the event in time for Beijing 2022.
Speaking to SportsPro shortly after the Olympics’ postponement on 24th March, Yiannis Exarchos, the chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), said that technologies that were due to be trialled this summer could now be scaled into more powerful tools by the time the event is due to reconvene in Japan next year.
“It is interesting that, right after the postponement and experience of working remotely, how many of our broadcasting partners are coming back to us and asking – with the benefit of more time – about the reconsideration of their operation in an effort to reduce their physical presence,” Exarchos explains.
“By the time of Beijing, we will begin to see significant adoption of new ways of consumer experience, including augmented reality, which will be enabled primarily by 5G technology. One would think that, if things go well, that maybe this also presents a last-minute opportunity for Tokyo, where there are already plans to deploy 5G on a trial basis.”
While contract negotiations with media partners have been a top priority for the IOC, its OBS unit has been distributing historical content and offering broadcasters access to its Olympic Channel 1 linear TV service to help mitigate the impact felt by rights holders during the dearth of live sport in recent months.
The Games themselves will introduce an array of broadcast innovations, including, for the first time, a full production slate in ultra-high definition (UHD). That innovation was given the green light for this summer, though the delay will also create additional time for the IOC to further embed its OBS Cloud service, which encourages remote production among broadcasters and will help streamline the distribution of video content to media outlets.
Developed in collaboration with Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba and US technology company Intel, OBS Cloud was launched in September 2018 and is designed to ramp up the delivery of the Games’ digital content to global broadcasters via the cloud. The joint venture will also see the implementation of virtual reality (VR) technology into its live and post-produced coverage, and will be available to download by broadcasters via an app.
Chris Tung, Alibaba’s chief marketing officer, says the collaboration has helped OBS to build cloud-based media solutions “that reduce the dependence for on-premise production operations” among rights holders; an innovation that could naturally become more common now that the industry is coming to terms with running operations from employee homes due to the coronavirus.
“In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are exploring some digital solutions with the IOC and OBS, such as a venue simulation platform, which could reduce the risk and cost of physical travel and venue survey during planning in host cities,” Tung explains.
“In addition, Alibaba Cloud is cooperating with the Olympic Channel and other rights holders to support the operation of their digital platforms for an enhanced ‘touchless’ experience for fans around the world. Fans and athletes will also experience a different Olympic Games with a lot of support from cloud technologies. For example, we are predicting long lines at souvenir stands to be replaced by immediate delivery to hotels from ordering on Alibaba’s online platforms.
“We don’t see significant changes on the Tmall Olympic store year-on-year sales. On the contrary, we have seen an increase on the number of visits to the store, which might be caused by the fact that more people are browsing online during the pandemic lockdowns.”
During the pandemic, Alibaba has also introduced a number of new ways to support global brands and merchants. “For example, brands on the company’s Tmall and Taobao ecommerce platforms are embracing new technologies such as live streaming,” Tung expands. “Taobao Live has become the leading avenue for businesses, big and small, to engage with Chinese consumers.”
IOC president Thomas Bach speaks at the unveiling of the Alibaba Showcase at the PyeongChang 2018 winter Olympic Games
Technology upgrades since PyeongChang 2018….
- September 2018: IOC and Alibaba announced the launch of OBS Cloud, a cloud-computing media solution, designed to deliver quick turnaround highlights for use by rights holder broadcasters.
- December 2018: IOC and Alibaba launch first ever online store for the Olympics, housed on Alibaba’s Tmall retail platform.
- January 2019: Alibaba and Intel launch an AI-driven athlete-tracking tool built to run on Alibaba Cloud.
- September 2019: Alibaba and Intel sign a strategic MoU to collaborate on technologies for Tokyo 2020, including 360-degree 8K immersive virtual reality (VR) video experiences for fans, delivered over 5G mobile networks.
- March 2020: Japanese public broadcaster NHK announces it will be providing 8K coverage from select events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympic Games, including the opening and closing ceremonies.
Meanwhile, Alibaba is also assessing how it can benefit from what Tung calls a “super sports year”, with the Beijing 2022 Games taking place in its home market.
“We always believe innovation and technology are the two key elements we could contribute to the Games, in order to help accelerate the digital transformation of the world’s biggest sports event,” he adds. “It helps brands to capture opportunities that emerged from the behavioural changes brought by the pandemic.”
With an apparent increase in digital consumption during the worldwide coronavirus-enforced shutdown, and uncertainty as to when fans will be allowed back into stadiums en masse, technologies that support digial media could also open up alternative advertising streams for rights holders.
By way of an example, Wimbledon’s data partner IBM is re-evaluating the tournament’s digital strategy on the back of the pandemic after agreeing an extended partnership with the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) in June.
Sam Seddon, IBM’s client and programming executive for Wimbledon, said that the partnership renewal will help give the world-renowned Grand Slam tournament a “year-round focused innovation stream” that aims to better understand the “fan’s wants and needs around digital content”, as well as bringing “innovation to the bear quickly and also in a continuous cycle”.
He also claims that while IBM has been put to work creating Wimbledon’s The Greatest Championships digital content series in the absence of live tennis, the data it is able to garner from consumption on the tournament's various channels will ultimately “drive a better brand experience and enhance Wimbledon’s reputation and commercial proposition”.
“In a strange kind of way, the partnership renewal and the way we’ve restructured it couldn’t have come at a better time,” Seddon explains. “We’ve had a long-term partnership with Wimbledon for over 30 years now, and they have been with us on our digital transformation journey.
“They put a huge emphasis on their digital platforms and it is almost a decade ago that we really started refocusing and reinvigorating those, so they have at their disposal a digital platform built on a very flexible architecture; from the IBM Cloud through to audience data analytics, and our access to artificial intelligence.
“Platforms that are used to working in a way that mines data will understand the consumer to a much greater extent than the sports businesses for whom they are distributing the content. Therefore, the commercial models that sports organisations need to think about in the future [should incorporate ways to] retain ownership of data and to commercialise that.”
Under the terms of the new agreement, IBM and the AELTC will combine forces to create a new innovation workflow within an in-house digital content hub at SW19. Noting the prevalence of such hubs and their contribution to an industry-wide shift towards remote broadcasts, Seddon believes a rights holder’s capacity to diversify their content delivery and revenue streams will largely depend on their ability to act on consumer data.
“The capability and skills gap within sports businesses [was] something we were talking about this time last year,” he continues. “Sports businesses that are large brands don’t generally have large IT functions, and are not always fully integrated into the commercial and marketing areas, but are rather about content and platform.
“There is a real focus that is going to be needed by sports businesses around how they build that skill area. So it’s only the large governing bodies and organisations that are going to be capable of doing that. There is, therefore, an opportunity for partners of sports businesses to build those skills and make them available in a few different ways, but also to centralise some of those platforms, using the right technology.”
The 2020 Uefa European Championships national soccer team tournament has been postponed until 2021
Seddon says that this will become more important while fans are shut out from events, and that the personalisation of content is more pertinent now that their absence is felt by competition organisers and sponsors. He points to a recent UK-based study, carried out by IBM in collaboration with YouGov, in which the majority of respondents indicated that they believe technology can enhance the home viewing experience.
Of the 2,000 people surveyed, a quarter said they want to see more video conferencing tools made available for specifically watching live sport with friends and family. Overall, 21 per cent said they watch sport via over-the-top (OTT) and social media platforms, while a fifth of respondents would welcome VR in-stadium experiences and more personalised content into their subscription. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two-thirds said they would like to see more sport made available on FTA television.
“Technology has a role in making fans feel safe to return to stadiums; across track and trace, ticketing, but also in the way that content is delivered,” Seddon expands. “That emotional connection with sport is always going to be paramount and the live experience is a key part of that, but there is going to be a number of sports fans who don’t want to come back early.
“Therefore, the role of creating that emotional connection in the home and with new content ideas and opportunities is going to put a focus on digital adoption at a much increased pace. That is a challenge for those sports businesses who don’t have that capability in-house but it is also a real opportunity to innovate, to do new things and, from that, actually do what was on the plan anyway – by monetising those new tailored and personalised experiences.
“For a sports organisation that is able to manage a wide suite of partners, being able to provide unique and defined partnership opportunities for them to engage provides an opportunity [for rights holders] to multiply their revenue streams. I absolutely see technology being fundamental in that.”