With the new Premier League season set to kick off, Adrian Pennington looks at the major innovations behind the broadcast of Football’s biggest league.
A traditional way of escaping the relatives over the festive season is to head to the pub and lap up some Boxing day Premier League action. This year, however, soccer fans may have to stay home, find a network hotspot to stream to their mobiles or hope that the local has signed to Amazon Prime.
The US online retailer has bagged exclusive broadcasts of all Premier League matches on 26 and 27 December as well as those played midweek on 3-4 December for its Prime Video service. It’s one of many changes to the 2019 EPL season which kicks off August 09.
Amazon won rights to show 20 Premier League matches a season for three years, beginning with the 2019 season. BT Sport landed another similar package for £90m. Together the deals mark the first time a full round of matches will be shown live in the UK.
The streamer’s games include Manchester United versus Newcastle at Old Trafford (26 December) and the Merseyside derby (4 December) with coverage being produced by BT Sport and Sunset + Vine. Details of their presentation have been kept under wraps.
Amazon Prime members can watch the games for free, as well as weekly highlights of all Premier League games throughout the season. With other internet players like Facebook not tempted to bid for rights this time around, Amazon has a valuable and possibly bargain opportunity to test the market and see what audiences it can generate. For fans wanting to watch everything, though, it means an additional subscription.
The chief concern for Amazon from a technical point of view won’t be the studio and matchday coverage but distribution. Issue including buffering when switching between matches were reported during its live multi-court coverage of Wimbledon.
“[Amazon] needs to calculate and anticipate correctly the number of people who will join for the matches in order to avoid any problems” Alexios Dimitropolous, Ampere Analysis
“Partnering with BT Sport and Sunset+Vine shows Amazon’s commitment to work more closely with the UK sports broadcasting market to deliver professionally produced content,” says Paolo Pescatore, analyst at PP Foresight. “However, it will have to encode and distribute the feed at a higher frame rate. Arguably a bigger concern is whether the UK fixed line infrastructure is equipped to distribute a stream at scale with low latency. Forging Prime Video distribution deals with providers such as BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media will help mitigate these issues.”
Right now, Amazon has around eight million Prime subscribers in the UK of which 25% are EPL fans.
“Amazon would also need to reassure the EPL that it can deliver the audiences necessary to support awareness of matches, and eyeballs for sponsors,” says Alexios Dimitropoulos, senior analyst, Ampere Analysis. “It needs to calculate and anticipate correctly the number of people who will join for the matches in order to avoid any problems and by delivering a seamless experience, prove to top rights organisations that they can be the distribution partner they need.”
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Considering Amazon’s global base and financial fire power, shelling out for further premium sports rights is within its capabilities but such rights tend to be geo-blocked. This means the same economies of scale which players in the non-sport market such as Netflix have been able to use, are largely unavailable.
Adds Dimitropoulos: “The collaboration of players like Sky and BT [in EPL bidding] is one way for broadcast players to spread the risk of rights acquisitions and ensure that they can deliver reach that an OTT player might struggle to achieve.”
BT Sport majors on HDR
Another way for pay TV to keep Amazon, Facebook et al at arms’ length is to up the ante by offering games in 4K, HDR and Dolby Atmos sound – something BT Sport is doing for all games this season.
COO Jamie Hindaugh tells IBC365: “We’re launching BT Sport Ultimate which will deliver pictures and sound in UHD, HDR and - exclusively via BT TV – Dolby Atmos. Additionally, we will continue to expand the ways in which it is possible to access BT Sport. Finally, look out for more development around personalisation, where we’ll enable viewers to control some aspects of programmes such as audio or graphics.”
The bulk of coverage in the UK remains with Sky Sports –128 games a season for three years costing £3.75bn - and BT Sport - 52 games deal paying £975m.
HDR is seen as a game changer by sports broadcasters. BT Sport’s format is HDR10 PQ which is considered better for mobile – and mobile is the telco’s primary target.
“When you consider the size of the mobile screen then adding 4K adds nothing [in terms of perceptual image quality,” underlines Hindhaugh. “Most of our perception of depth comes from contrast, not resolution.”
“We’re launching BT Sport Ultimate which will deliver pictures and sound in UHD, HDR and - exclusively via BT TV – Dolby Atmos.” Jamie Hindaugh, BT Sport
Arguably it will be the introduction of the full next generation 5G core network, enhanced device chipset capabilities, and increased availability of 5G-ready spectrum which will kick-start more exotic consumer applications.
BT’s mobile division EE has scheduled this rollout from 2022 with BT Sport putting AR sports experiences at the top of the list.
“The potential is huge for both at home and in stadia experiences,” confirms BT Sports director of mobile strategy Matt Stagg. “The ability to enhance sport is phenomenal by, for example, overlaying stats of players taking a penalty - live.”
Early AR experiences are imagined via smartphone but BT Sport is casting future interaction with live sports toward some form of lightweight glasses.
In addition, BT Sport is developing plans for what is often termed ‘object-based broadcasting’, which will enable viewers to personalise and control some aspects or objects of programmes, such as audio or graphics.
Spotify of sports
Outside of the UK, digital player DAZN holds exclusive EPL rights in Spain, Japan and in Canada.
DAZN takes the host feed produced by Premier League Productions (PLP) and makes it available both live and on-demand, something that will particularly accommodate viewers in Canada wanting to watch games in different time zones.
In Spain, the service launches with 235 live EPL games a season 2019-2021/22 with additional content including MotoGP.
“The advantage we have is sheer scale,” says EVP Rights, Matt Drew. “OTT has gone from simply being a facilitative technology to get additional content out there for a single sport, to being something which is reacting and stepping in to meet fans’ needs beyond traditional broadcasters.”
Service glitches dogged the streamer’s debut in Canada in 2017 with the NFL but it has been working to fix it.
“We’ve spent the last two years really focusing on the basics, making sure that when customers hit live, they get a live image and no buffering,” declares Pete Parmenter, SVP business development at DAZN. “Live is very technically challenging. People do not watch throughout the day but watch when the game is on – tuning in a couple minutes before it begins. We’ve got to optimise our on-boarding and sign in processes to make sure we can bring as many people in as efficiently as possible.”
Having already likened itself to Netflix, DAZN now makes comparisons with the leading digital music disrupter with its focus on pick and mix multi-sport content.
“What Spotify is doing for music, DAZN is trying to do for sport,” Parmenter says.
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Club OTT delivers to superfans
DAZN has also struck a partnership with Premier League Champions Manchester City, the first time it has partnered with a single football club in this way. The deal saw DAZN produce and broadcast the EuroJapan Cup between City and Japanese side Yokohama F. Marinos on 27 July.
It comes as more clubs and leagues are looking at their own OTT offerings. In North America, all four major leagues have long operated their own streaming services. In Europe, Italy’s Serie A currently transmits live match action via its own OTT service and La Liga has followed suit (albeit without live La Liga games yet).
“We want to push the boundaries in technology and sports consumption and provide an immersive entertainment experience for our loyal fanbase.” Nuria Tarre, Manchester City
The EPL is reportedly mulling its own streaming platform, and Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, announced the launch of Uefa.tv in June. Franchise and club-owned OTT launches are accelerating, according to research by Nagra and MTM Analysis.
Nine of the top 25 football clubs by revenue in 2018 offered a paid OTT service including Newcastle, Liverpool and Chelsea. Perhaps the most significant debut to date is from champions Manchester City, which launched its Man City for TV offering, live-streaming the club’s pre-season friendlies and with plans to air Women’s and Academy games in the future.
Nuria Tarre, CMO at the football club, gives an indication of the ambition: “By becoming a central hub for Manchester City content, we want to push the boundaries in technology and sports consumption and provide an immersive entertainment experience for our loyal fanbase, wherever they are.”
Premier League 2019: Amazon and HDR to debut
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Premier League 2019: Amazon and HDR to debut