By Fabio Murra, 30 May, 2012.

Football: Driving Innovation in Television

The 2011/2012 football season has been one of the most captivating in recent memory and the UEFA Champions League final proved a fitting climax to the campaign. Chelsea's unlikely European success over Bayern Munich was watched by an estimated worldwide TV audience of 160 million, aired by 119 broadcasters in more than 220 territories; the largest for a sporting event this year so far.

Without revealing my personal football allegiances, I must say I was captivated by this year's European final.  As an Italian I possibly have a passion for football hard-coded in my DNA, but one must admit this year's European tournament has been fascinating!  One of the things that really struck me during the match was the amount of influence football has had in the development of some of the most important advancements in live television.

Seventy-five years have passed since the BBC broadcast the first football game on television; an exhibition match between Arsenal and Arsenal's reserve team.  This test event acted as a demonstration of the BBC's capacity to televise live sport, although the broadcast lasted just 15 minutes.

Since then, the broadcasting of football has embarked on a remarkable journey, moving from an era of grainy black and white images to full color, embracing an array of innovations that have enhanced the viewer's overall match experience.

Rapid developments within our industry have revolutionized the way we watch, debate and analyze football.  Looking back as little as 20 years helps to understand the extent of this change.  Even the most basic television concepts such as on-screen clocks and score-lines were a result of innovations first launched by Sky Sports as recently as 1992.

Football coverage remains a hugely profitable business for broadcasters, as the sport draws an unwavering loyal worldwide following.  Gaining exclusive premium football rights to the world's most popular leagues (predominantly England and Spain) is a reliable insurance policy for operators to increase ARPU and reduce subscriber churn.

Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Daily Mail reported a potential interest from Apple to invest in the rights to the English Premier League, to help establish Apple TV in the UK and boost iPad sales.  Al Jazeera is also thought to be interested in making a bid for this premium content.

By offering the latest technologies and delivering the highest quality output, sports broadcasters are continually pushing the boundaries of television innovation.  Sports drove the wide adoption of HD TV and has been the main subject for 3D TV broadcast.  According to UEFA, the HD broadcasting of the Champions League final was produced by 38 separate HD cameras and offered an even more enhanced coverage through a broadcast using 12 true 3D cameras.

Sky Deutschland was the first national pay TV operator to launch HD channels in Germany, and it has recently announced plans to expand their service from 42 channels to 60.  Writing for Digital TV Europe in April, media commentator Kate Bulkley described how the operator developed state of the art HD-ready studios ahead of the launch of its 24-hour sports news channel last December.  This formed part of Sky Deutschland's successful $3.3 billion bid last month to win the Bundesliga rights from 2013 to 2017 on pay-tv, web TV, mobile platforms and IPTV.

The HD services have proven very popular in Germany - subscriptions at the end of December last year were up 14% from 2010, ARPU increased in 2011 to 30.46 a month, a rise of 6.2%; and subscriber churn was reduced from 16.2% in 2010 to 11% last year.

Today, viewers can tailor their match-day viewing to include specific camera angles, watch highlights on-demand, browse endless statistics and trivia, select certain commentary and even watch multiple games at the same time.  Due to the social nature of sport, it will undoubtedly be sport broadcasters who will also embrace all the new trends in social media consumption, continue to drive innovation and make televised football a highly interactive experience.

Fans can also expect an increase in match coverage availability, regardless of network or device, as well as quality of pictures, with 4K TV match coverage already being planned.  Thanks to the advances in mobile network technologies, such as the roll-out of LTE/4G, and video compression and delivery, such as adaptive bit-rate and soon High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), viewers will feel as close to the action as never before.

It is not all about the delivery.  Cameras have had such an influential impact on the game they are even beginning to effect rule changes within the sport itself.  During the England v Belgium international friendly at Wembley Stadium this weekend, 'hawk-eye' - a technology widely used in elite level tennis and cricket - will be tested as a possible development in 'goal-line technology'.  I would expect a concept such as 'hawk-eye' to emerge as a universal football standard by the beginning of the 2013/2014 season.

These drivers are what continually motivates us, as the leading supplier to so many broadcasters and content owners, to meet the challenges of bringing the most compelling live content to sports fans around the world.

Where will the next innovations in football coverage lead the direction of live television?  If the Champions League final taught me one thing about the future of football on television, whenever the Anglo-German football rivalry is renewed, high drama inevitably follows...Roll on Euro 2012.

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Written by Fabio Murra

Head of TV Compression Product Marketing, Ericsson

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