Tech Execs: 2016 Will Be 4K’s Year in Live Sports Production

While 4K is taking hold in entertainment and personal content, the enhanced format will make its mark on live sports production in North America next year.

The technology has been integrated into the production flow for some NBA games on ESPN, and Fox and CBS used 4K cameras to shoot some footage for the 2014 World Series and Super Bowl XVII, respectively.

But executives speaking on the What’s the Market for 4K Streaming panel at the NeuLion Sports Media & Technology gathering held by SportsBusiness Daily and Journal in New York last week, predicted that 2016 will see the introduction of live 4K sports production in this hemisphere.

Chris Wagner, EVP/co-founder, NeuLion, which has been working with the World Surf League on streaming 4K action, said his company will air a live over-the-top production of an event from the surf circuit, “early in 2016.”

EVP NBA, Operations and Technology, Steve Hellmuth

NBA EVP, Operations and Technology, Steve Hellmuth

Last season, BT Sports produced the Jan. 15 matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks from London’s O2 Arena in 4K, the first for a major U.S. sports league. With an assist from Neulion, the game was streamed to NBA headquarters in New York.

Steve Hellmuth, EVP, operations and technology, NBA, said anybody who has witnessed 4K technology has been impressed: “We did the game there last season with our partner BT Sports, and the NBA would like to work on another game and take the next step.”

Under the latest incarnation of the league’s Global Games initiative, the Toronto Raptors will meet the Orlando Magic at 02 on Jan 4.

In an interview after the panel, Hellmuth said the NBA is considering offering the 4K production of the game as part of its international League Pass offering. He also expects that one of the league’s key domestic partners — Turner Sports and ESPN on the national side, Fox Sports and Comcast with their regional sports networks — will produce a game in live 4K this season.

For his part, John Studdert, VP, sales and marketing, Sony Electronics, noted that Canada’s top distributor, Rogers Communications, will begin showing selected NHL games in 4K on Sportsnet in January, before airing all 81 home games of the Toronto Blue Jays in the format. Rogers owns Sportsnet and the MLB squad and has a stake in the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs.

The live sports productions follow 4K advances in entertainment — both from Hollywood and, closer to home, with content conveyed via IP delivery.

Streaming services Netflix and Amazon Prime are mandating that all of their original productions be shot in 4K, and an increasing number of movies are also being presented in the format through IP-connected vehicles.

“What drives interest in technology is content,” said Matthew Durgin, director, content innovation, LG Electronics. “Netflix, Amazon, and [DirecTV Ready] are all helping to push 4K. You want great content to use on the technology, whether that’s your own pictures or Daredevil from Marvel with Netflix.”

Studdert said 4K cameras or smartphones with the enhanced capabilities are serving to lift the format.

“You shoot a local soccer game with a camera or use your cell to shoot video and then play it on 4K TV,” he said, adding that taking photos in 4K and running them as a slideshow on TV is another prime display for the technology. “Every device helps accelerate interest in 4K. This helps consumers get used to the quality and drives want for the products.”

He said equipment cost is reasonable, with cameras that can be used to shoot theatricals now running $30,000. The price point for the same gear 10 years ago: $250,000.

As for 4K TVs, LG’s Durgin said more and more Americans are embracing them. He cited projections calling for 1.5 million 4K TV sets in the U.S. in 2014, a total that is now forecast to reach 4 million or 5 million this year. “That could double in 2016 to 10 million,” he said, noting that research from Parks Associates pegs global 4K sets at 330 million by 2019.

Wagner said the desire to broadcast in 4K makes sense from a business perspective because, when it comes to sports fans, “the better that experience, the longer they tune in, the more likely they are to spend money.”

He said Neulion is ready to monetize 4K-content distribution, relative to pay-per-view, subscription, and advertising opportunities.

The NBA, said Hellmuth, has additional motivation to make 4K part of the league’s videogame plan. He lamented that Michael Jordan’s exploits played out during the standard-definition era. “Jordan wasn’t seen in HD; you couldn’t see what a panther he was on defense unless you sat courtside. Now we’re in the 4K era and we can appreciate things even more.”

He said that he doesn’t “want to let LeBron [James] go” without capturing “The King” in 4K.

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