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Why the Champions League Final marks the culmination of a year of innovation in sports

By James Michael-Holmes

There have been precisely 472 Premier League fixtures since ‘Project Restart’ commenced last June and the 2020/21 season concluded last Sunday. In between, there has been a plethora of FA Cup, League Cup, European club tournaments, international friendlies and qualifiers squeezed into a small calendar space. There’s been practically wall-to-wall football on the TV screen over the past 12 months. And yes, I’ve done my fair share to boost some of these viewing figures.

But before the European rivalries spill over from Eurovision to Euro 2020(+1), tomorrow there is the small matter of the UEFA Champions League final, featuring two English sides for only the third time in the competition’s history. It should be a great occasion, particularly with the partial return of fans in the stadium.

All live events – whether it’s a concert, a sport or even a trade show conference – contain certain in-person aspects that just cannot be fully replicated virtually. A stadium atmosphere is one; it enriches the experience for the players in the stadium and the spectacle for the fan at the game or at home. The recent FA Cup final was a prime example. Even a limited crowd of 20,000 fans inside Wembley Stadium injected passion, spontaneity, and that all-important story-telling element – tension! While immersive augmented reality overlays and artificial crowd noise are incredible technical innovations, they can only extend so far – just listen to that roar!

Enhanced remote production techniques

Over the last year, broadcasters and content owners have had to find new ways of working to prepare for some of the world’s most-watched events, ranging from the Super Bowl to next month’s European Championship and July’s Olympic Games. Remote production processes, for instance, have been scaled, refined and enhanced throughout this period, helping to utilise expensive equipment better and reduce the number of onsite personnel.

Thanks to such techniques, BT Sport’s broadcast team has had the flexibility to manage its operations and react effectively to the sudden change of venue. Switching the final from Istanbul to Porto earlier this month means that 16,500 fans will be attending the stadium on Saturday night – with millions more tuning into BT’s live coverage. Great for viewing figures – particularly for attracting the eyeballs of some of the most loyal football supporters – but not so great for event planning.

As Jamie Hindhaugh, BT Sport’s COO, described to Adrian Pennington of IBC365, it was akin to being “on board a plane circling in a holding pattern over Europe for two weeks until they could finally tell the pilot where to land.” Indeed, unlike the 2019 final, where BT sent 200 people as part of its OB operations, this year there will be a reduced crew of 43, with the remainder based remotely in London. Nevertheless, as BT Sport’s chief engineer, Andy Beale, explains, having done wide-area productions on over 70 Premier League games over the past year, “it has sort of become normal.”

Sports fans are changing the way they watch content

Since winning the UK broadcast rights to the Champions League coverage in 2015, BT has used the final as a testbed for several new technology innovations, ranging from 360-degree VR feeds, HD with 4K streams and 4K HDR delivery to mobile devices. This year the final will be available for free on YouTube in 4K UHD in 60fps. There will also be the ‘Watch Together’ feature for BT App viewers, which has been in place throughout the 20/21 season. Another interesting BT feature is a new timeline option for its large screen app users, enabling interactive access to re-watch critical moments and revert back to the live game on-demand.

Trialling various viewing experiences is key to differentiating future sports content delivery. Put simply, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all sports fan! ‘Watch Together’ helped to recreate the feeling of sharing the matchday experience with friends and family. In the future, and as larger groups have the freedom to watch in the same physical space, that feature’s value probably lies in helping to connect longer-distance relationships. Equally, where one viewer may wish to experience a 360-degree perspective – or interact with short-form, second-screen content mid-game – another will want a tunnel-vision towards the primary broadcast. Absolutely. No. Disturbances. Whatsoever.

Evolving the traditional linear experience

The traditional linear broadcast experience will continue to play a major role for a long-time to come. However, as the past year has shown, viewers are becoming ever more accustomed to new streaming methods, and they will continue to embrace the new opportunities that are emerging in this space. Ofcom’s recent report, prepared by Kantar, shows linear TV remains valued for ‘in-the-moment’ viewing across all age groups.

However, for live sports events, in particular, Ofcom reported significant consumer irritation around adverts, repeats and the lack of personalisation of the experience. And herein lies the key point. OTT offerings address some of these irritations head-on by opening up new engagement and monetisation opportunities so that they appeal to an increasingly evolving fanbase. As MediaKind reported in its 2021 Sports D2C Forecast, “compared to traditional linear broadcasts, one of the big advantages offered by streaming technology is the ability to create more of a two-way experience between the viewers and the content.”

472 Premier League fixtures on from ‘Project Restart’, and there is a lot of optimism in the air for a full return of fans to stadiums and a return to some kind of normal. What ‘normal’ turns out to be remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: many of the innovations in remote production and methods of engaging viewers will remain and continue to be refined. Regardless of the viewing method, the match-watching experience is becoming more impactful, personal and reliable. Although if you’re a fan of the losing side on Saturday night, then you may be one of the few who disagree!