Last year, Fox Sports employed drones as part of their coverage of the US Open. The flyover shots were quite spectacular, in high definition and only made possible by advancements in drone technology. It used to be that aerial shots were captured by cameramen in helicopters on blimps, but the aerial drone was accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration, broadcasters can simply throw up a drone and capture the shots in a fraction of the time.
At the same time, some broadcasters are now offering fans the chance to virtually attend games, strapping into a headset and being dropped right into a front row seat at an NBA finals game. Thanks to the specialists at NextVR (and others) fans can experience slickly produced highlights reels, complete with a choice of camera positions and an exclusive commentator. CGI elements are overlaid onto the video feed and, altogether, it’s a novel way of watching sports.
These technologies are undeniably cool, but there are question marks over both, in terms of their potential for adoption and their necessity. Let’s take the development of drones first. Just this month, SportTechie published a story on a palm-sized drone that promises to allow anyone to capture footage of sporting events, with a 13-megapixel camera capable of recording in 1080p FHD. The technology is impressive but it will, ultimately, be confined to outdoor sports like golf or cricket, given the impracticality of having a host of drones from different broadcasters jostling for space inside a stadium or court. Most top-level stadia are already fitted with enough cameras to provide any angle you could possibly want, and predictions that drones will offer never-before-seen perspectives are overblown. For amateur teams looking for a relatively cheap way of recording games from new angles, drones may be genuinely exciting. For large broadcasters, they’re unlikely to bring about significant change.
Similarly, sports broadcasting through VR has problems that won’t be quickly fixed. First, and fundamentally, not that many people have VR headsets. In 2017, Statista estimate that there will be some 90 million active virtual reality users worldwide, a figure that pales in comparison to the number of people watching sports on a weekly basis. This problem is compounded when you consider the fact that, currently, only certain headsets are accommodated for by sports broadcasting’s major players. Yes, this issue will begin to resolve itself as VR hardware becomes cheaper and more accessible, but this will take time. For now, VR in sports broadcasting is destined to remain as niche as it currently is in gaming.
For the technology actually making sports broadcasting more effective, we have to look beyond hardware. Artificial intelligence, for example, is taking highlights to the next level. French startup Mojjo, for one, uses technology which condenses tennis matches down into highlight reels by detecting the movement of the ball and the players to discern what happened in any given game. Over 20,000 matches have been analyzed to date in the technology’s development, and it promises to offer highlights almost immediately online. Anyone who has tried to find quality highlights of any sporting event outside of the official channels will know how difficult it is, and Mojjo’s ability to offer game stats alongside the highlights makes for a genuinely exciting offering.
Another technology that has fundamentally changed sports broadcasting is player and ball tracking. Sports punditry has long been important, but the ability to analyze player heat maps, pass maps, shot maps, etc, has made it an altogether more fundamental part of sports analysis in broadcasting. The popularity of punditry has even led some broadcasters to run ad-free half time shows, sponsored analysis rather than traditional advertising. Our focus on hardware means that technology like VR and drones makes a lot of the headlines, but it’s the intelligent tech at work behind the scenes that is pushing sports broadcasting forward.