Sport on TV – Again – the Technology Matters

I’m following up Andy Marken’s article yesterday (Watching Sports Is Fun
and Game/Industry Changing
) on sport and its importance for Pay TV and for TV viewing in general and the development of streaming. Unlike Andy, I understand a bit more why people feel ‘wild about sports’. It’s an important part of the TV viewing landscape.

I say this because, since I first went to a live football match very nearly fifty years ago, I fell in love with ‘the beautiful game’. I have no skill or ‘natural talent’ in sports (to put it mildly) and in my family, sport and sportsmen were looked down on – although my father enjoyed motorsport and ‘All-in-wrestling’. Andy pointed out that wrestling is more acting than sport, though. Anyway, after going to a match, I really ‘got the bug’ and I started to follow my local team (I walked past the ground on the way to work each day) both home and away for a couple of years. I then moved with work and carried on. For home matches, I would leave home on a Saturday before 7.00am to get two buses, three overland and one underground train to get to a 3.00pm match, only to get home around midnight. There was little football on TV in those days.

Over the years, children, mortgages and work stopped me going to many matches, but three decades or so ago, I started to sometimes support a lower league, local club that was close to my office. In recent years, I have got more and more involved and I now edit the programmes for matches, help with the website etc and write some match reports. I go to around 30 games a year, now, in the fifth level of English football. But I still love the first team I supported, although I live a long way from the ground. So I watch that team on TV and am prepared to pay for the privilege. I’m far from the only one.

Live Should be Live

Watching on TV is not the same as attending a match. In many ways, it’s superior – at this time of year, it’s a lot warmer and you have the chance to see action replays. That can be an advantage – at the match before last I missed a goal as I was sorting out a website problem using my smartphone. However, watching live sport is not a passive experience – especially if you are one of 50,000+ at an event roaring on your team. In football, the crowd is seen as ‘the twelfth man’. Often you will see a player make an individual move (regularly a strong tackle) that fires up the crowd, who respond. That, in turn, encourages the other players. There is a ‘Pyschological Theory of Tiredness‘ that supports this.

So the point about the viewing sport live is that viewers feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are part of the event. They may not be active participants in the sport itself, but they feel their singing and shouting has some influence. Many viewers of sports on TV will shout at the screen. We all know, intellectually, that our exhortations or comments cannot affect the action at a distance (whatever quantum mechanics says!), but it doesn’t stop us. And that is why live sport is important, in my view. Somehow, knowing the result, or even knowing that an event is not happening live as we watch highlights breaks the feeling that you can influence the result.

The TV and Broadcast Method are Important

A more engaging experience, with more of a feeling that you are really there, is really important to sports watching on TV. Anecdotes are not the same as research, but here are some from me.

  • My wife is a keen football fan – she took me to my first match. However, she doesn’t pay much attention to the TV we have or the quality of the audio or video. Just imagine, then, how pleased I was when, one day a year or so after we went ‘HD’, we were watching a match and she suddenly said, with distaste, “Is this standard definition?”. It was – I was delighted that she had finally realised why HD was useful!
  • I remember hearing, when 3D TV was ‘going to be a big thing’ that some viewers really didn’t like watching sports on smaller 3D TVs as somehow it was ‘too real’, and the effect was of some miniature players playing in a fish tank, rather than simply being a ‘window on the world’.
  • One year at IBC, I watched a demo of 8K TV by NHK in a theatre that they had set up with a JVC D-ILA projector on a huge screen and incredibly immersive 22.7 sound. They were showing a Copa America match recorded in 8K. Although I really didn’t care about the game, the teams or the result, within a minute or so, I was really immersed in the experience. The technology matters.

To get as much soccer as I want, I have a good deal from my Pay TV supplier that supplies the two main sports services in the UK, Sky Sports and BT Sport, as part of a big bundle of broadband, TV and mobile connectivity. Last week, I went to watch my team only to find that the match wasn’t being shown by those broadcasters, but only by Amazon’s Prime Video. As it happened, Virgin was having a problem with its integrated ‘Cable-based’ app for Prime, so I had to watch using the TV’s ‘Smarts’ and the open internet.

Prime soccerPrime is showing plenty of soccer in the UK

Prime Video Soccer

The spatial resolution was fine, and the colours a bit less natural than usual (and closer to a ‘film look’, I think) on Amazon Prime, but the lower frame rate of the system was quite disappointing. The motion of the ball was much less clear than on Sky or BT Sport and, while it was much better than not seeing the match, I would have preferred it at lower resolution, but at a higher frame rate. The other big distraction was the 30 second or so delay from truly ‘live’.

While watching the match, various devices such as smartphones and tablets, were pinging away some time before with incidents being reported on my sports tracking app. Football is a fast enough game that the action could switch from end to end in just a few seconds, so it wasn’t certain, when the pings happened, at which end the goal was being scored. However, it did rather reduce the enjoyment of watching. A research report earlier this year highlighted the issue and confirmed that I’m far from the only one that finds the delays very irritating.

broadcast delays

I’m not sure how you solve the problems of synchronisation between these independent channels. Equally, I’m not sure how you can significantly reduce the transmission delays of streamed media. I suspect that much of the delay in streamed video is in buffering that reduces the ‘choppiness’ of video delivered over the public internet. The internet was not designed for sending time critical information with low latency.

Writing this article has made me wonder whether, perhaps, sports broadcasting could be a ‘killer app’ for 5G? The huge fees paid for soccer TV rights show how important live sport is for broadcasters. If pre-prepared content is likely to migrate to some kind of streaming, could it be teamed with 5G, which has very low latency, to offer ‘full service TV’? It’s a good idea, but given that I live less than a mile from a mobile phone tower, but often have no 3G, let alone 4G or 5G, I’m not optimistic that the quality of service would be much better than I get today! (BR)

As this article really follows on from yesterday’s column, we have made that one freely available, without using one of your free articles if you are not yet a subscriber. (Watching Sports Is Fun
and Game/Industry Changing