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The impact of Covid-19 on live sports and how the industry is transforming as live sports resume through 2H20

The possibilities of innovation and adoption for live sports across the broadcast and media industry this year were unparalleled, that is until COVID-19 hit. We have seen it shake up the media industry in so many different ways, but it has caused particularly sizeable tremors in the area of live sports production.

The impact on live sports has been significant; with fans turning to a wide range of on-demand content, broadcasters have been left reeling from a spring/summer period with considerably reduced amount of sports. Sports media revenues in the Asia-Pacific region were forecast to take a USD 2 billion hit in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, according to projections from Media Partners Asia in late March.

The long-term impact of the crisis remains unknown with major sports events, such as the Formula One Grand Prix in Vietnam, the Tour de France, the Indian Premier League, and the 2020 Summer Olympic Games postponed.

Global viewing figures were expected to at least match–if not exceed–those of previous Summer Olympics (Beijing 2008 peaked at 4.4 billion viewers). New innovations were set to be introduced–both NHK and RAI were due to broadcast the Games in 8K UHD–while NBC universal executives expected to surpass the USD 1.2 billion ad dollars generated during the 2016 Olympics in Rio. However, the industry and supply chain is resilient and has adapted to a new normal with sporting matches resuming in empty stadiums and production and delivery back on track as lockdowns ease.

Harnessing remote production
With little to no live sport for fans to watch since March this year, the South Korean K-League and KBO League returned with no crowds in May to many fans’ relief.

But the question remains: How can sports broadcasters continue to engage fans and mitigate the problem of empty stadiums whilst delivering high quality and engaging coverage?

According to the IABM June 2020 Buying Trends Report, during the COVID-19 outbreak, streaming consumption skyrocketed globally and despite media companies’ revenue from traditional broadcast operations declining, among all end-users, OTT and streaming services have become increasingly important as a new source of revenue. As such, the power of remote production and live streaming capabilities is critical for broadcasters to meet consumer demand. But what is next for live sports production for the remainder of 2020?

It is likely that production budgets will come under scrutiny after broadcasters and streaming services successfully delivered compelling content during the pandemic in a bid to slow down subscriber churn and are on a fast track to a slimmed down workforce.

The new normal could see fewer staff employed behind the scenes with remote production the lynchpin for ongoing success. Notwithstanding the technical challenges from latency, synchronization, and transmission bandwidth that could cause issues, the future of remote production for live sports in limitless. However, if sufficient bandwidth is not available or the cost of the bandwidth is deemed too high for the use of light compression, a higher performance video codec is required. MPEG-4 AVC has been used, but today this increasingly means the
use of HEVC.

Thanks to the development of SMPTE ST 2110-22 Compressed Video Essence, which defines how to carry JPEG 2000 or JPEG-XS, the problem of synchronizing all the different video audio and metadata streams or essences is made easier.

Changing habits
Watching live content typically relies on dedicated broadcast chains leveraging high quality dedicated infrastructure from broadcast, cable, and satellite.

However, ever changing user behaviors and their expectation of broadcast quality live streams rely upon operators that leverage internet based adaptive bitrate (ABR) streaming. The delivery of this content allows broadcasters to reach an extended number of device types both in and out of the home.

ABR also reduces the barriers to entry, enabling new entrants to offer live services. For example, sports streamer, Twitch has dedicated APAC channels for live tournaments while China’s Baidu announced plans to invest USD 70.3 million into the live-streaming sector in May this year.

The key is optimization at every step of the video pipeline, from encoding, packaging, delivery, and decoding. In order to address these needs, close support for standards and interoperability testing are necessary with an ecosystem approach to be leveraged based on industry standards.

One example of this approach is the MediaKind Universe Alliance, which was announced in 2019. This innovative technology partnership program enables content providers, service providers, and operators to access complete media delivery workflow solutions that combine technologies and services from MediaKind with leading industry partners in cloud and other offerings.

Above all else, the future of video streaming must recognize that consumers want the same, high quality live and on-demand experiences on whatever service they use. As user behaviors evolve, an OTT viewing experience must be at least on-par with that of a broadcast channel. Just good enough simply does not cut it anymore!

Converting to cloud
As the world resumes to the new normal and sports broadcasting will boom once again the aftermath effects of COVID-19 will likely cause operators to halt on large CapEx investments and instead invest in OpEx shifting to more flexible distribution models.

Enriching the fan experience in the era of uncertainty is fundamental and whilst legacy hardware equipment once dictated how broadcasters worked, today the same cannot be said. Flexibility and new technologies across the supply chain will drive growth and enable opportunities greater than ever before.

Service providers can no longer afford to tie themselves exclusively to satellite or fiber operations. Although satellite currently plays a fundamental role in today’s contribution and distribution space, it is expensive and takes a considerable amount of time to set up. By decentralizing existing workflows, operators of all levels can utilize cloud networks and the internet both as a backup or even as a primary link.

Indeed, there are even question marks that surround the long-term viability of satellite as an exclusive means of content distribution and acquisition. 5G auctions are reducing the amount of available spectrum for satellite, which in turn is causing these providers to shift away from C-band. Virtualizing the management of linear, VoD and SVoD services also offers better opportunities to manage resources. Broadcasters and operators can optimize the usage of their infrastructure, tap into quicker and seamless production applications, and dynamically increase the quality of their live channels to enable the best possible viewing experience.

Normalizing change
Even during this uncertain period, the constraints have proven to be a catalyst for innovation and creativity. It has placed the spotlight on the reality of production-grade solutions and how the move to the cloud can ease some of the challenges around the need for on-site operations.

The majority of today’s video applications are capable of running in the cloud, whether it is non-linear editing, quality control, archiving, or scheduling. There are more challenges to overcome in terms of how broadcasters adapt to live and remote production, playout, and control room operations, but the transitional periods that once took years are now being rolled out within months.

By the end of 2020, the prevalence of SaaS models in the media will see a stark rise in DevOps processes. This will enable the automation of processes ranging from development to production, providing premium reactive and advanced proactive monitoring support.

The second half of 2020 is also an opportunity for broadcasters and service providers to experiment and for new innovations to emerge. Live 360-degree content could be one area to help differentiate services and generate new revenue streams.

There are a number of live sports and esports competitions that are well suited to act as desirable use cases and applications for this technology. In the UK, BT Sport has rolled out a 360-degree app, which enables an array of unique viewpoints and camera angles to watch highlights and replays alongside its live coverage.

Looking ahead to the future of live sports, it is clear

that innovation and the seamless adoption of new technologies will drive success for broadcasters and operators alike. As the industry looks toward its short and long-term future, the components are in place to deliver more affordable, flexible, and scalable sports services to consumers.

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