SVG Year in Review: Sports Leagues, Networks Find Ratings, Technical Success

By Ken Kerschbaumer

2008 ended with the MLB Network tossing out its first pitch to viewers, giving sports broadcasting an instant lift heading into what promises to be a challenging 2009. The network’s launch was also one of the top stories of 2008. Herewith, a quick look at the top stories in sports production in 2008.

It is often said that past is prologue, but 2008 proved that simply isn’t the case. The New England Patriots’ undefeated season in 2008 failed to end in a championship, the basement-dwelling Tampa Bay Rays made it to the top in the MLB American League, and, most important, relative economic certainty during the first nine months of the year gave way to economic uncertainty the likes of which the sports world has never seen.

2008 began with a deal between the NBA and Turner Sports that could portend future relationships between leagues and network partners. The NBA, in a move to more efficiently meet expanding digital opportunities and also open up resources to more effectively address the international market turned day-to-day operations of NBA TV, NBA.com, and NBA League Pass over to Turner Broadcasting System while NBA Entertainment operations remain in Secaucus. NJ. The contract begins with the 2008-09 season and will run through the 2015-16 season. “This is a practical joint venture, not a legal one,” says NBA Commissioner David Stern. “We’ll be sharing the burdens and benefits.”

Fox Sports and Game Creek Video made sure the quality of Super Bowl XLII’s production matched the on-field action as the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots in one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever.

A week later, Fox Sports offered viewers a new perspective in NASCAR coverage as Gophercam, a small HD camera built into the track surface, made its debut at the Daytona 500. “No gophers were harmed,” joked David Hill, Fox Sports CEO. “This is the most compelling shot I have ever seen in the history of sports. It reinforces the speed and precision at which the sport is raced.” It also led to a new series of animated shorts based around Digger, a gopher that will debut this upcoming NASCAR season.

In March, FSN Southwest, the Dallas Mavericks, Pace 3D, and the NBA worked together for a digital-cinema viewing of a regular-season game in 3D HD. They also proved that 3D HD could be delivered via satellite using MPEG-4 encoders and decoders. “I still don’t know if MPEG-4 is contribution-level technology, but it is definitely distribution level,” said Mike Rokosa, NBA VP of engineering.

April saw the industry descend on Las Vegas for the annual NAB convention. This year’s top story? Along with an abundance of Olympics-related deals, 3D HD seemed to generate the most buzz. And by year’s end (see December), it became clear that the buzz will only grow at the 2009 show.

The HD transition shifted into first gear at the Indianapolis 500 in May as IMS Productions made the move to all HD. For Ken Gardner and Dave Gass of IMS, the move closed out a longtime dream as the rest of the production team (and millions of viewers watching the race on ABC Sports) benefited from new workflows that gave all involved the clearest look ever at life in the fast lane.

The U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in June provided one of the year’s top sports moments as Tiger Woods overcame a stress fracture and gimpy knee to prevail in a playoff over Rocco Mediate. It also proved the mettle of NBC Sports, ESPN, and providers like NEP, Total RF, and Corplex, which covered the action flawlessly.

July’s big sports-technology innovation occurred across the pond at the British Open. Inertia Unlimited introduced a dual-output super-slow-motion system that could provide both slow-motion playback and full-speed, real-time playback simultaneously. The development solves a lot of the production challenges faced by broadcasters looking to deliver super-slow-motion replay from prime camera positions.

The 2008 Summer Olympics from Beijing delivered knockout ratings for NBC and also proved that TV and online content can coexists peacefully and without cannibalization. It also proved that Beijing Olympic Broadcasting and the technical team at NBC Olympics could deliver an all-HD Olympic experience, an effort worthy of a few gold medals.

September saw the world of videogames collide with sports television as ESPN and EA Sports developed an analysis tool that allows ESPN analysts to diagram plays using life-size videogame representations of NFL players. The system was such a hit that it’s expected to be used in other sports in the future.

October was highlighted by the magical playoff run by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the AL and the upstart Philadelphia Phillies (who won the World Series) in the NL. And while the matchup wasn’t quite the Fox Sports dream of a Red Sox vs. Cubs series (and reality reflected that the lack of the dream was a ratings nightmare), the MLB playoffs gave both Fox and Turner Sports a chance to shine technically.

The NBA and Turner Sports in October also officially launched their tighter relationship when NBA TV began its season broadcasting out of Turner facilities in Atlanta. The move required new HD buildouts in Atlanta, as well as new workflows because NBA digital-media management and archive facilities remain in Secaucus, NJ. “This is a tremendous facility,” says Mike Miller, NBA TV coordinating director, “and we bent over backwards to welcome NBA TV to Studio B.”

In November, politics was front and center nationwide but also crept into the sports industry as the FCC issued an order to allow unlicensed consumer devices into the White Space spectrum currently used by sports organizations for wireless microphones and communications. The good news? The order placed strict requirements on the consumer-electronics community that were in obvious response to concerns made known by the Sports Technology Alliance, an organization formed by SVG and composed of all the leading professional sports leagues, the NCAA, and broadcasters.

The year did, however, end with one event that very well could be a prologue of the future of the industry. On Dec. 4, the NFL Network broadcast the San Diego Chargers game against the Oakland Raiders in 3D HD, an important event that showed the viability of delivering live sports in a new way to theaters and homes.

So where does that leave the sports-broadcast industry heading into 2009? Economic uncertainty is already having an impact, but the ratings of sports broadcasts are expected to climb as fans elect to stay home from the big game as discretionary income falls (or at least is squirreled away for a rainy day).

T
hat’s the good news. The bad news is that networks will be looking to squeeze every ounce of value out of every nickel spent and will most likely also scale back productions, staffers, and more. Through it all. expect Sports Video Group to be there, helping your organization navigate through difficult times.