Venue Q&A: Zuffa/UFC’s Christy King
By Rick Price, Contributing Editor
Currently in-house technology consultant and tech vendor manager for Zuffa LLC sports entertainment brands, including the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), Christy King researches, tests, and implements new and emerging methods to share content information among media partners in traditional-television, gaming-console, mobile, OTT-box, Internet-platform, second-screen, and emerging technologies for content distribution worldwide. Collaborating with several vendors to create a DAM, MAM, and BAM for Zuffa, she has developed a deep understanding of cutting-edge technologies to receive, catalog, and store media and addresses metadata issues, closed captioning, SAP information, scripts/transcripts, formatting for export, QC processes, approval-policy workflows, and other asset-management issues.
You have, I believe, a unique career-development path: from a video producer/writer to technology VP overseeing research and development. Tell us a little about your career.
I was a producer, writer, and editor for years for a company that did documentary-style films for teachers and adults involved in early-childhood education, and some of our materials were certified to provide continuing-education credits for educators. All of our materials were then available on VHS tape with written, printed classroom materials.
Our primary audience for a lot of that material was people that didn’t have easy access to American universities, [particularly people stationed on] American military bases throughout the world. We had a process where we would send a preview tape and some of the materials in the mail. It could take a month for those materials to get there, so I started to understand this crazy thing called the Internet and what you could do on it. … I understood that, if I built this thing called a Website — with all 12 HTML commands that were available [in] ’93, ’94 — that I could compress a chunk of video and put it in this Website. Because American military bases all had access to that Internet backbone at that time, [our audience could] go to my Website, click, and download this video. It would take about 20 hours to download 30 seconds at dial-up speed, but, if you think about that versus getting a tape in the mail, this was a massive improvement in distribution.
The lightbulb went off for me in a big way very early on, and I very much understood and saw what was going to happen to our media distribution in general. I spent the next seven to 10 years trying to convince everyone in traditional media that I wasn’t crazy and this really was a good idea and people really were going to do this.
How did you get started with Zuffa and UFC?
They found me. I was working for a CBS affiliate. I’d been living on the beach and having a fine time, and a salesperson that they hired [who had] worked with me at that affiliate called me up and said they needed somebody that does this “Web stuff.” Even in 2006, Websites were everywhere, but this was still the day when people were trying to decide if they [should build] a very basic, fast-loading HTML-driven site and just let it be factual or [build] super-fancy Flash-based gorgeous stuff, which took three minutes to load the homepage right.
The Zuffa guys brought me in and interviewed me because I built Websites. … I kind of knew what worked at that time and what [didn’t] and what most people were going to do. The owners of Zuffa really understand the culture of technology and how people use it, especially young men, because that’s a big part of our audience (and really, frankly, [the owners are] not very far from being very young men themselves). So they hired me because I kind of understood what was wrong with the site they had at the time. I was pretty blunt about what needed to be different, and those guys like blunt. They hired me to figure out what to do with their Website, how to get a lot of video into it, how to make it advertiser-friendly but not be in the way of the content they were trying to promote.
How has your role evolved at Zuffa?
Because of my production background, it very quickly evolved into letting the experts who focused on the Web marketing and Web content do their thing and for me to just get out of the way and sort of focus on the backend, operational parts. Everybody sees television, and it’s pretty, but they don’t realize there’s 150 people [behind the scenes] between the trucks and the cameras and the people laying cable and the graphic designers and the staff. It takes a lot of people to get that nice, pretty sports event on TV. It’s no different for mixed martial arts, and it’s also no different for Web streaming. Whether it’s VOD or live, there’s a whole operational backend to get that material from point A to point B, and, for the last several years, [I’ve] really focused on trying to make the operational aspect of distributing video make sense financially, with the right kinds of production people still influencing the right parts of Web or mobile distribution.
What is your role now as VP of digital technology R&D?
The leadership of the company is very, very focused on our television product. Obviously, that is our bread and butter. Those pay-per-view shows, those Fox shows, anything that’s on television [is] still the [way the] vast majority of people are going to see mixed martial arts.
There’s so much happening to distribution. There’s XBox, there’s PlayStation, there’s phones … all these things that are available all over the world, all these cool little over-the-top [and] set-top–box technologies that are coming out — their job is to distribute content. What they’re trying to do is make finding content as easy as possible and playing it back in the highest-quality way. So what I do is really focus on, OK, we make this, we promote this sport called mixed martial arts, and it’s a very visual medium, so we want to get that video and audio onto every box that’s out there. Any kind of technology that’s in the world, we have to get it there. … And that just doesn’t mean you push out audio and video; you have to have metadata.
Can you generally describe the scale of the traveling roadshow that is UFC?
At this point, I think it’s about four people who distribute content full-time to all of these different technologies. That’s it, four people, and we distribute to well over 200 distribution points worldwide a day. Those materials all have to have titles, and they all have to have descriptions, and they all have to have price points; they all have to have ratings that match different countries’ rules, and there’s a ton of operational stuff that goes along with each of those materials. So you have to build an asset-management system that is able to output in an efficient and reasonable way to all those places. You have to build metadata systems where the people can write titles and descriptions and whatnot and be able to repeat that over and over and over again and then in different languages to go along with each of those pieces of content that are distributed. Then, you’ve got to have some kind of reporting process to figure out how to keep track of what went out and what didn’t.
We have the audience and the popularity, if I may say so, of a lot of the rest of the American ball and stick sports, but, unlike those team- and league-driven sports, we’re in a different venue every week. That venue is a basketball arena one week and a hockey arena the next weekend and maybe a really large concert venue the week after that. When MLB [teams broadcast from a stadium], [the broadcasters are] all shooting the sport in a similar way; they’re doing social media often in pretty similar ways; they’re using the Internet in similar ways; they’re distributing in similar ways; they’re capturing the same types of cameras. It’s a little easier to travel when you walk in somewhere and everybody there already knows what you do. We essentially have to bring all of our own toys, all our own cameras, lay down cable for all that stuff, our own lights, our own sound systems. We use the closed-circuit systems that are inside the buildings oftentimes, of course, and some of the other parts and pieces that are there, but really we bring in 90% of our own stuff every time and set it up. … And our seating configurations are really different, so it’s a pretty significant production. But we’ve been doing this now for so long that we have it down to a fine science.
I am sure there are many challenges, but can you tell us about a technical/operational challenge you were able to solve with unique technology?
We’re focused on trying to get a lot more video and audio out of the venue, directly from the venue to fans. There’s a limitation to how much information you can throw at a set-top box in your living room, but we can push out a whole lot of other cool content to [your] laptop or phone or all these other competing devices. So we focused a lot in the last year on how do we take advantage of standard Internet connections and figure out clever ways to compress and deliver video and audio directly from the venue without going through satellite systems or traditional television distribution. Using standard Internet connections, we’re pushing out different kinds of video and different kinds of audio.
We essentially have three distinct audiences. We have people who are watching this stuff in bars or restaurants, we have people in the venue, and we have people that are watching it at home. What we’ve found is that you really can provide the three distinct experiences because audiences are experiencing the show in three really different ways. We can send things to each of those three audiences, provide things for them that make sense in the environment they’re in.
What do you think the next big development for sports-production technology is going to be?
If I had to pick one thing that was going to affect television over the next few years, I think it’s data: massive quantities of consumer data being compiled and understood quickly enough that that data will actually affect how shows are produced. If you’re sitting there as a producer, you [might] have the ability to look at a dashboard, let’s say, that tells you what your audience is responding to and not responding to or what’s trending in your culture right now. It will, and probably should, affect the way you produce your show because you have information about your audience and what is relevant to them right now in the moment. Then your show can adjust accordingly. Maybe [only] in small little subtle ways, but that makes your current live activity as it’s broadcast especially relevant to the people that are watching it. I think being able to understand in the moment what a million people watching your shows are reacting to in the moment will absolutely change the way content is produced.
Can you share a most memorable moment or satisfying accomplishment in your career?
I don’t think I understood it at the time, but I think that the most effective thing that I did for Zuffa … is building the asset-management system with an extensively clever delivery process. I didn’t realize it at the time how important it was going to become and how vital it was going to be to make video distribution possible at the scale that we’re now at in a very short three years. We literally could not function without it. The company couldn’t do what it does without that system in place, and I had no idea at the time that it was going to be that integral. I just thought I was replacing tapes with a storage system. But I really didn’t put two and two together until about 18 months into the project, and I realized this isn’t just a faster way to get video moved around. It is the way to get video moved around, and that system can make the distribution process incredibly efficient with very few people, and that just means that your people then can spend their time on other things.
Tell us your purpose for serving on the SVG Venue Technology Committee and what you hope to accomplish.
I would really like to see communication between venues and the folks like us that use those venues be a whole lot more complete, happen sooner, [and trade information] in a much more thorough way. We show up at these places, and, half the time, I’ve never talked to anybody inside of that building. It should be no surprise that the things that I need are not where they need to be. I’m speaking, of course, from my end specifically: about technology needs, network access, Internet questions, WiFi, DAS. All those sorts of issues are changing so fast and are becoming so vital to every thing that we do as a content provider. … I really think it’s important that all of us that create content in these venues have a culture of communication and sharing of information that just doesn’t exist right now. I would really like to see there be a lot more synergy between what a venue is doing, planning, and building and what the people that use those venues actually need.