ITL #459 Sport, technology and the media: embracing technology during the pandemic1 year, 10 months ago
European Athletics has stayed on track despite some difficult hurdles thanks to solutions such as a Virtual Media Centre delivered through cloud-based technology. By Rob Faulkner
A whole year without events. Stadiums shut down, major sporting competitions cancelled, athletes in lockdown posting videos of themselves training indoors, sporting challenges posted across social media to keep the millions of online followers satiated with content – these were the scenes that greeted us all in 2020.
Fast forward to 2021 and as a society we were learning to live with covid-19 and a new set of written and unwritten rules. In the sports world a return to events was foreseen and was much anticipated by sports fans globally all of whom had been starved of their favourite sport and sportsperson for the most of the previous year.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics would now take place in 2021, as would EURO 2020 across Europe and in the case of European Athletics, although our flagship European Championships in Paris was ultimately cancelled, 2021 was shaping up to be a year full of events including the major European Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland in March.
Rise of technology
However while 2020 saw a dearth of live sporting events, it also ensured the rise and acceptance of technology together with a new found use for the hours and hours of digitised archive material of past events and great sporting moments. Television and media rights holders were all too happy to retrieve past action and post it across social media, make it available via video on demand channels like YouTube, or simply rebroadcast across linear television as schedule fillers in a world where there was no live sport.
The challenge for European Athletics as we entered 2021 was to ensure a safe successful return to live events for our athletes and member federations while adhering to the strict ever-changing country by country restrictions on fan and media attendance.
We were to find the solution through a combination of old school on-site media operations and facilities allied with the acceptance and application of modern cloud-based technology.
For our indoor championships in Poland there were to be no spectators allowed and media only with strict social distancing rules. The latter meant that many of the on-site media facilities (media centre, media tribune, photographers’ working room) were therefore limited in terms of capacity. Add to this the fact that many media either could not or chose not to travel due to the coronavirus restrictions, and we had to find a solution to allow the media to report live on the championships.
Virtual Media Centre
We found the solution by working together with our broadcast partner, the EBU, together with some external suppliers, to provide what was named the Virtual Media Centre. Cloud-based technology allowed us to offer a password protected online media room where journalists could follow the live stream and live results, plus view a list of athletes made available for interview in a remote mixed room which was bookable in slots.
On site, through the provision of multi-lingual press officers manning a series of virtual interview stations, we were then able to connect the requesting journalist with the athlete of his/her choice and the interview was carried out live in their native tongue. Other options such as video on demand clips, press kits, statistics and past results were also made available.
The point is that technology is now ready and available, and for the most part reliable enough, to allow sports media to not only follow the action but also to access all the facilities they would normally expect on site but from the comfort of their own living room. This includes the traditional post-event interviews with the athletes that normally take place in the live mixed one. The same goes for the traditional pre- and post-event press conferences, which were all now accessible and available online, and which we continue to do online.
Rights and non-rights holders
Surely a win-win, right? Yes, to a large degree, but there still remains the wider question over differentiating the facilities and media access that a paying rights holder has over a non-rights holder, although traditionally this is of course access to the live broadcast rights as well as priority access to player/athlete interviews pre- and post-event.
Whilst technology has allowed us to provide a much-appreciated service to media during the pandemic, it has also contributed to a further blurring of the boundary between rights and non-rights holder in the world of sports.
Live sports content
Ultimately lockdown showed us that while technology can provide a convenient tool with which to assist us in our role of supporting the media, nothing beats live content and attending in person. It is precisely the unpredictability of sport, with its last minute penalty decisions or stumbling over the last hurdle before the finishing tape, that provides the excitement and drama for the fan and that makes it such an appealing live product for television. Hence why television rights continue to be the dominant revenue driver for the majority of international sports federations.
Conveying the atmosphere and emotion from a live event, as well as the result, has always formed a core element of the sports journalist’s work. Indeed it is no surprise that it was not long before football matches that were being played in empty stadiums, with commentators working from home using technology I hasten to add, had background crowd noises added for effect. Sport is meant to be consumed live and that includes media reporting.
My own view is that in the world of sport we will continue working with a hybrid model where we increasingly rely on technology to deliver media services remotely but where access to the live event, with the subsequent on event media facilities, will continue to remain the standard. With the Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships coming up from 15-21 August this summer we won’t have to wait long to see.
Rob Faulkner is Head of Communications at European Athletics. He was previously Chief Communications Officer for Serie A champions Inter Milan where he oversaw three ownership changes and handled seven first team coaches in a four-year stint. Prior to this, he was Head of Communications at European football’s governing body UEFA.mail the author
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