Remote Sports Production Executive Roundtable: Booming Business, Tight Budgets, Part 1

As the value of sports-media rights continues to rise dramatically, broadcasters and content owners are seeking cheaper, more efficient ways to produce live sports telecasts. As a result, mobile-unit providers are as busy as ever, producing more live sports events for television and streaming outlets than ever before, but are called on to do so on an in­creasingly tight budget.

“How we are going to do more for less is an ongoing discussion that we are always having both internally and externally,” says Mike Werteen, SVP, sales and client services, NEP Broadcasting. “Our clients are paying large rights fees for properties that have become unbelievably important to them, and they need to be able to find ways to make smart business decisions moving forward. They are looking at partnering with companies that will embrace those changes, so we are [tasked] with finding ways to adapt our business to make sure that we can deliver the same service that we have done in the past in the most economical way possible.”

Despite the pressure to produce the same top-quality shows at a lower price point, the remote-production business has thrived in recent years, largely thanks to a seemingly insatiable appetite for college and regional sports programming, as well as increasing online streaming.

In addition, with all four major pro sports leagues now assured of labor peace for the next half decade, the NBA and NHL (and nearly NFL) work stoppages that rocked the mobile-unit industry in recent years are firmly in the past, with brighter days ahead.

College Sports Bigger Than Ever
No aspect of the remote-production market has seen such dramatic growth as college sports. As major conferences and universities launch dedicated networks across the country, lower-profile conferences and schools are finding new, economically feasible ways to produce events live and distribute them via their own digital networks or national streaming outlets like ESPN3.

“[College sports] is where the real exponential growth is right now, and those [shows] aren’t always going to take 53-ft. expandos,” says Alliance Productions President Craig Farrell. “Ten years or even five years ago, none of these games were being [produced]. But a streaming-only college basketball game does not usually need a multimillion-dollar mobile unit, so that is where we need to come up with new solutions and new strategies to grow that business.”

Meanwhile, national and regional sports networks are gobbling up as many college-football and -basketball rights as possible, calling on truck vendors to provide facilities for games that would never have been produced just three years ago.

“When you ask about growth, I have two words for you: college sports,” says CSP President Len Chase. “We have been inundated with college-basketball requests [this fall]. Even though we [launched a new truck] in November, I’m already receiving more requests than we can accommodate. I also have several large new packages from new clients, and it’s all in the college world. The conferences are now getting a lot of new dates on various networks, and they are looking for trucks for those shows.”

Multiscreen Shows Take Off
The market for streaming-specific remote-production facilities has grown exponentially in recent years, with both lower-tier events (college Olympic sports and minor-league sports) and secondary feeds on major events (such as golf majors and grand-slam tennis tournaments) are demanding scaled-down solutions to deliver content to fans online.

“[Streaming shows] have become a significant part of our business,” says Werteen. “When we initially thought of second-screen productions, we saw it as having one truck [on-site] doing a lower-level collegiate event. That part of the business has not grown for us, but the larger productions — specifically golf — now have a need to create separate content for secondary screens. Those second-screen productions need to be high quality, and a lot of the time that means a [dedicated] truck.”

While events like The Masters golf and US Open tennis tournaments roll out dedicated 53-ft. trucks to produce specific-hole/court and featured-player feeds, several truck companies are introducing small-form-factor units that can produce smaller standalone shows or secondary feeds at major events. Dome Productions, for example, has launched two digital-media-production vehicles — Side-Car and Revu — designed with a smaller footprint to support the primary broadcast with multiscreen applications, behind-the-scenes content, and social-media interaction.

“We believe this market will become a legitimate sector of the industry, and, when it does, we will be ready,” says Mary Ellen Carlyle, SVP/GM, Dome Productions. “In the design of our newest truck, Silver, we also provisioned for an area that will increase appropriate support and capability for second-screen needs.”

At Long Last, Labor Peace
For the first time in three years, all four U.S. pro sports leagues will enter a new year without fear of a work stoppage. Few industries were hit as hard by the NBA lockout of 2011 and NHL lockout of 2012 as remote production — making the assured half decade of labor peace on the horizon reason to rejoice.

“Labor peace within these major sports leagues is obviously critical to us in the industry, because that is where the vast majority of our income is coming from,” says Game Creek President Pat Sullivan, noting that his company lost several million dollars as a result of lost NBA and NHL dates.

Werteen seconds that notion: “Now that we have several years of labor peace in front of us, it makes us more bullish about putting significant money back into the business in terms of upgrading and building new trucks for our clients. This business requires investment, and, if you don’t have the capital, then you are going to be left behind. If there are things that are out of your control, like labor unrest, it puts a question mark into that.”

Prolonged labor peace has also — at least for the time being — restored order to the industry’s supply-and-demand dynamic, which was thrown into chaos when mobile-unit providers were forced to scramble to find hundreds of replacement dates for jobless NBA and NHL trucks.

“Even if you don’t do a lot of pro sports, when there is a pro-league work stoppage, it is going to flood the market with mobile units that are now looking for work in your backyard,” says Farrell. “The market has a nice balance of mobile units and work, but, when one of those big contracts goes away, it is going to shift that balance, and that is never good for the market.”

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