4K, VR and Drones: The Evolution of Sports Broadcasting
It seems so long ago when the only way to check football scores or the US Open golf leaderboard was by flicking to the sports pages in a newspaper.
These days, it seems you can watch or listen to every putt, point or pitch from sports around the world, thanks to the evolution of sports broadcasting.
The rising cost of televising sporting events gives you an idea of how fast sporting broadcasting has exploded in recent years. Agreed to in 2015, the current deal for domestic NFL television rights totals $4.95 billion per year until 2021, a rise of 60% on the previous deal.
While the value is not as high, the 2014 MLB deal saw the cost of television rights double, with the NBA also increasing by 180%.
However, the money pumped into TV rights for sports events can often be justified by the potential number of viewers they can pull in. More than 110 million people tuned in to watch CBS’s coverage of the Broncos’ victory at Super Bowl 50 and between 30-50 million viewers enjoyed the Playoffs.
2016 also saw ABC’s highest ever NBA audience of 31 million as the Cavs clinched the NBA championship in Game 7.
With so many potential new viewers to gain, sports broadcasting is just as competitive as the games they show live on their multi-million dollar channels. The likes of the CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN are constantly trying to gain an advantage on their rivals so they can establish themselves as the flagship broadcaster for as many events as possible.
Nevertheless, it’s not always about what sporting event they can show, but also how they televise it.
Making this increasingly challenging, many of the broadcasters have shared rights for some of the bigger sporting events, resulting in direct competition. To combat this, broadcasters are seeking to try and gain an advantage somewhere.
Increasingly, this is done by using tech.
4K: Futuristic Viewing
Currently, having incredible picture quality is something that sports broadcasters are very keen to promote by investing heavily into 4K screenings.
Until now 4K has been limited to online services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, but as the technology becomes more affordable, the market is growing. Canada’s Videotron is already carrying live sports in 4K Ultra HD, showing select NHL and NBA games in the new format.
In the UK, BT Sport have already launched a new ‘Ultra HD’ channel that offers a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 pixels adding increased clarity and definition to your TV screen compared to regular HD which is 1920 x 1080.
It is only a matter of time until this next evolution reaches the mainstream in the US, and it is not just improved visuals that are on offer.
BT Sport’s leap into the future also includes sound as they have also introduced Dolby Atmos. This new technology creates a 3D sound experience and may be familiar if you have watched films such as The Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
By combining this with 4K, the broadcaster hopes their viewers can discover a new level of immersion in sport as the atmosphere of a crowd makes them feel closer than ever before.
English Premier League fans are already enjoying the roar of the crowd when their team hits the back of the net, but watching Monday Night Football with the sound of the Seahawks’ 12th man bringing CenturyLink Field to life, is a spine-tingling prospect.
However, you can’t get these upgrades with any old satellite box.
You will also need a 4K ready television and the Dolby Soundbar to reap the benefits. With all this technology coming into play, it's increasingly clear that it is not just the sport broadcasters who need to invest, but also the customers if they want to get the most out of their subscriptions.
The early adopters of the 4K television may have paid the price for buying them too soon as all 4K TVs made around 2013 have been branded obsolete for sports broadcasting. This is because the older 4K sets can only render 25 frames per second (fps) which is okay if you wanted to watch a movie, but to watch sport you will need 100fps.
It seems now that the old HD has become a little dated since Dish Network and DirecTV began carrying HD content in 2002. But, who knows how long 4K will stay around for with the likes of LG already showcasing 8K TVs for the future.
The TV giants may not mind if 4K has the same lifespan as regular HD, but they will be hoping it doesn't flop in spectacular fashion like 3D has in the past few years.
The director of LG’s product development, Tim Alessi, said he felt 3D compatibility failed to convince the public to go out and buy a new set. This is the same problem that the many manufacturers of Virtual Reality (VR) headsets will need to tackle if it is going remain in our living rooms.
Virtual Reality: An Immersive experience
To avoid suffering the same fate as 3D, VR headsets must be more than easy and comfortable to use than 3D glasses, but they will also have to progress further by adding something extra that a normal television can't.
What makes VR stand out from the crowd is its ability to transport viewers to a huge event, like the Super Bowl, from the comfort of their own home. No other piece of technology allows you to control your own viewing experience in such an immersive way, potentially offering a view from the stands as if you were there.
VR has already been tested by NBC at the Rio Olympics, and Sky Sports in the UK have started experimenting with a new format through Facebook’s 360 viewing. But, what we might witness in the future is the bonus of seeing a game from a player’s perspective as well as a fan’s.
It's small advantages like these which the heavyweights in the sports broadcasting world strive for, as various unique camera angles may draw in more viewers to their channels.
With that in mind, don't be surprised to see drones playing a huge part in this battle for viewers as they have already proved they can produce stunning shots from a remote control.
Drones: Eagle-Eye View
The four rotary blades allow the drone to have better stability, therefore they can achieve unique aerial shots which many cameramen can only dream of.
Even beyond broadcasting, the use of drones has become one of the fastest growing technologies in sport. A number of College football teams have also started using them for analysis in training to help with spacing linemen and even creating visual playbooks.
Many networks have already tried to achieve similar aerial shots at live events with the use of a Spidercam. Moving at speeds of 20mph on a suspended cable, the Spidercam is able to give a birds-eye-view of the most spectacular moments in sport.
However, the Spidercam does come with its problems.
As well as the cost of installing them, there are no assurances that they won't be hit or obstruct play, as Raiders’ wide receiver Amari Cooper found out last year when a fourth quarter pass against the Kansas City Chiefs appeared to hit the Spidercam‘s wires, ending their chance of a comeback.
It seems like the battle to gain the highest ratings in sport has become some sort of arms race, a scramble to see who can get the latest technology onto their channels before anyone else. As broadcasters pump more and more money into advancing technology, it may result in subscription prices increasing and having to deal with watching even more advertisements.
But, as long as we can watch rather than relying on newspapers again, it is unlikely that most sports fans will mind.
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