How COVID-19 has changed production of live sports

Dhaval Ponda, Head of Media and Entertainment of Tata Communications, says sports broadcasts have moved from on-site production to a remote production hub.

The SailGP is an international sailing championship between eight teams who race on high-performance boats called the F50 that touch speeds of over 92 kilometres per hour.

Each event spans 15-minute races, in eight parts of the world during a season. It is a test of strength and skills against wind and water for the participants.

The current edition of SailGP, taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been a test for the organisers, as they provide live video feeds to referees—in three different countries, miles away from the event location—in milliseconds, for them to make their decisions quickly.

The referees have to be on the lookout if teams are making mistakes, and assign penalties. If anything goes wrong in the video feed, it can delay the game and cost a lot of money for the stakeholders.

To support the refereeing, SailGP partnered with Tata Communications to deliver video with low latency—or, minimal delay.

“It is in real time," Dhaval Ponda, Head of Media and Entertainment division, Tata Communications, tells EnterpriseStory. "Decisions are communicated and executed in real time—in a matter of seconds.”

Tata Communications, which operates one of the world’s largest wholly-owned subsea fibre networks and a Tier-1 IP network, has evolved into a digital ecosystem enabler.

For the SailGP, it designed a Virtual Video Assisted Referee (V-VAR) solution to provide the live feed to referees who can check it from different parts of the world.

This is possible because of its low-latency streaming platform, Video Delivery Network (VDN), to deliver the live feeds faster and without delay. “Umpires have immediate access to all the data needed to make crucial, split-second decisions,” says Warren Jones, Chief Technology Officer of SailGP, in a press statement.

Tata Communications, which clocked income of Rs 17,257 crore in fiscal year 2021, delivered more than 9,000 events globally with the support of its VDN.

Its media and entertainment division works with sporting federations to transfer live feeds from the venue to the central hub, where the feed is produced, and sent to licensed broadcasters in different countries—in a matter of seconds.

“There is absolutely no room for error or adjustments for the entire workflow,” Ponda notes.

For a live event, the video feed draws from anywhere between 30 and 50 high-resolution cameras at the venue, depending on the event. This feed is sent to a central production hub using its customised media and entertainment subsea cable system in milliseconds.

Before the pandemic disrupted travel, sports coverage involved a massive satellite truck, whenever a large event happened anywhere in the world. A group of 200 to 300 people at the venue managed the feed transmission from the truck.

“Even before the pandemic happened, that kind of a schedule was not feasible,” Ponda says. “And especially after the pandemic, there is no way that organisers can send 300 people to each venue every weekend from country to country.”

In the remote hub, the videos are collected, and the production team sends the live feed to all broadcasters. A live feed is produced in 300 to 400 milliseconds. The finished video gets distributed to sports broadcasters across the globe, who have paid for the rights of the tournament, such as Star Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports.

For global events, Tata Communications has to distribute the feed to 60 to 70 broadcasters around the world, who then broadcast or stream it to their audiences in another few seconds. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed technology-enablers to work on improving speed, to make remote communication as real time as possible.

“There is a lot of emotional involvement in sports,” Ponda says. “Imagine one black screen during an important football, tennis or cricket match. The kind of reaction you will get from sports fans on social media is going to be absolutely brutal. We are conscious of that.”

The global sports market is expected to touch $1.1 trillion by 2025, according to a report from Boston Consulting Group and SIGNA Sports United.

Even as sport events mark a return with pandemic restrictions easing, Tata Communications has been working with Over The Top (OTT) content platforms to improve live feed using VDN. The broadcast that content viewers see on their TV or mobile screens is almost in sync with live matches.

Tata Communications reported a profit of Rs 1,252 crore in FY 2021, compared to a loss of Rs 84 crore in the previous year. However, its media and entertainment division “fell sharply due to cancellation or postponement of major live sporting events,” noted Amur S. Lakshminarayanan, Managing Director and CEO of Tata Communications, in the latest annual report.

But, the pandemic may have contributed to reducing the cost of production, as live feeds get produced remotely before the content is distributed miles away from the sports venue.

“This is a fundamental change,” Ponda says. Organisations have moved away from people-intensive, on-site production, and are looking for ways to use technology to improve it. “Digital transformation is really a one-way train, and it is going extremely fast,” said Ponda.

With cloud, the company has been able to innovate and offer better functionalities like V-VAR to its clients.

Edited by Kunal Talgeri