An interview with Sarah Milburn, Head of Tennis DAZN, OTT Sports Streaming and Head of Production WTA Media, the home of women’s tennis globally.
London, UK – January 5, 2021 – The impact on the sports industry of the cancellation of live events due to the pandemic needs no explanation. However, when events are reintroduced but with no live audience and social distance measures in place for the athletes, organisations, sponsors and other stakeholders, how does this impact operations and what role does technology have to play? Sarah Milburn, Head of Tennis DAZN, OTT Sports Streaming and Head of Production WTA Media, the home of women’s tennis globally, talks candidly about the challenges faced in 2020 propelling women’s sports. WTA Media is attached to DAZN, selling international rights to sports footage – mainly combat sports – to linear broadcasters, and the newly created media hub is set to propel combat sports to reach a new audience. While the challenges are too big not to acknowledge, Sarah hopes it’s the opportunities born from adversity that will be the legacy of this year, and will pave the way for others to follow suit.
The reality of Covid-19 has been the human impact, often limited, reduced resources and practical challenges to working together in teams. How has the WTA been affected?
With many of the team on furlough, the team was drastically reduced. This is where the intuitiveness of the technology we relied on was really tested. It’s really just been a few other line managers and myself. Like the majority of sports and media organisations, before we could look forward we needed to ensure we were still standing; we went into survival mode.
Beyond the human impact of losing the support of your team while they were on furlough, what were the main challenges you were hit with?
The lack of content was made glaringly apparent by its absence; filling that gap was the first goal. As an organisation spearheading sports broadcasting technology, it was like taking a fall after setting off in the 100m sprint in first place and knowing we would never be able to recover the distance. But then, once we’d taken stock, we realised that the difference was obvious. Whilst an athlete relies on what their bodies can do, we can harness technology to propel ourselves forward. We don’t have to run to the finish line, we can drive. So we started to look at different ways to bring the sport back and the technology we already had helped us to keep pushing content across different channels.
How did you go about filling the gap in content, despite the cancellation of live events?
The ‘non-live’ content team, who manage the media portal, used Imagen’s platform as our hub for securely storing and accessing both live and archived content. This proved more important than ever because we needed to understand how to rely on the portal to use archived content to engage with fans. With us working remotely from home, we were able to edit directly without the support of post production staff thanks to the technology we already had in place. It meant that we were able to keep the bare bones, at least, of the content machine running. For example, to fill the gap in the schedule of the live events that were planned to take place, we relied on the archived content in the hub.
To create new content we used our access to players; it’s something we definitely continue to do more of as live events and audiences make a return. We used Zoom to talk to players about their favourite matches, their insights and more. We’d often wrap around new original content with archived content to create longer form features, which has worked well.
As live matches made a return, but Covid-19 restrictions were imposed, how did this impact media production?
From identifying the safest locations to play, to planning the logistics of arrivals and the matches themselves, organising the live events proved a new challenge. With fixtures being updated every week, the roadmap of events has been – and still is – continually changing. We needed a plan, and a format, that was both agile and scalable. It’s this agility and scalability that we demanded from the technology we employed, and came to rely upon.
We needed multiple game plays for one event in case of multiple scenarios. As well as locating ‘safe’ venues, we needed virtual sponsorship so the branding could be changed at the same venue. We looked at having one main location with no live audience and virtual sponsorship, with banners that could be digitally interchanged for alternative sponsors’ logos. Even this solution proved untenable though at this current point in time. To put the weight of the safety measures into perspective, I worked with the WTA to compile a 100-page document on health and safety procedures that had to be implemented by everyone at each chosen location before and during the event.
When the team went out to the US to play, they had to get a visa exemption kit and Covid-19 tests and, regardless of results, were forced to self-quarantine. Once the quarantine period was over, they could train and play, but then had to quarantine once again on their return. Logistically and financially, this has been a huge challenge.
As an OTT sports streaming platform, how has DAZN had to adapt?
The most pertinent change we’ve seen, has in fact been a positive one – whereby reporters actually have more access despite not being able to attend in person. Now, we often utilise live video streaming for press conferences and interviews and it means that media professionals can dip into live events and use the video almost instantaneously. Broadcasters are now given more live facetime with the athletes.
One challenge has been to provide access to multiple stakeholders without creating a mesh of permissions and frictions in the platform. With different rights holders relying on the platform, from journalists and broadcasters to fans and other rights holders, it’s been crucial that we can tag permissions with ease. The practical implications of on-site connectivity are a real consideration. While we’ve been fortunate that it’s not been an issue for us – so far – elsewhere in the world the location of events, as they return, could prove problematic for streaming.
While we use a third party – Imagen – for our media hub, it’s completely branded so our stakeholders who wouldn’t usually rely as heavily on our online resources are spending time in familiar branding.
Has the way you create content changed the way your work overall?
We’ve been collaborating with more tournament reps to capture content and distribute to as many outlets as possible. We’re actually over-saturating now since there’s been such a gap but we’re looking at how we can offer more quality alongside live programming going forward, despite the challenges of remote working. Advanced remote technology at DAZN definitely helps this. Ultimately it won’t be at the same standard of content as, for example, regularly speaking to players in person at the events, but at least we can offer access to the players which keeps fans engaged. If it was ‘business as usual’ we’d look to be monetising this, but since we’re using this to fill what would otherwise be a void, our goal right now is simply to ensure our stakeholders are supplied with content despite the gap in live events.
The question of remote production has been around for a while and there’s historically been a reticence to embrace innovative technologies; while we’re at the forefront of broadcasting tech, it’s that final step of investment which has previously been a risk. Our existing hybrid model (product with robot and operative cameras) has helped us to adapt at a time when being agile was vital; it’s made a global tour of events much more scalable and cost-effective.
New content has always been cross-pollinated across multiple channels; now that’s happening more rapidly. With more people consuming content in different channels and in different countries, it ignites interest from broadcasters and whets their appetite for more content. With scarcity comes demand, so the tournaments that do take place are met with anticipation from both broadcasters and fans – which, in turn, attracts sponsors.
We just want to do the sport justice! To keep the sport alive, we have to think about keeping the fans engaged; that comes before everything. Without the fans, and without the athletes there’d be no broadcasting opportunities, no sponsors. It all stems from a passion for the sport. And for the first time, no one seems to be differentiating between men’s or women’s tennis; they just want to see good sport!
Going back to the technology, where has digital asset management played a part in keeping the wheels turning?
Aside from the quick and secure access to archive content, Imagen’s platform has been so intuitive that people across the organisation have been able to use it without specific training; they’ve been able to dive right in. A lot of people try to overcomplicate platforms, to make it look high tech, and think it offers something more. But it’s always better to be simple and straightforward, especially for short form media. We’ve been able to quickly find specific segments, the searchability has been straight forward. If we want to dive in and find a soundbite, it’s there.
We have always had a challenge with transporting media to different territories. There’s a one size fits all model, but every time you convert media you can lose important aspects of it. The benefit of online digital consumption is that you don’t see this loss in quality as you’re not watching it on your widescreen. So the friction comes into play when we revert back to traditional broadcast viewing. However, as we alluded to before, at some point we have to lead the way in innovation and set a new standard in broadcast quality.
As a final thought, is there anything else you’ve noticed about the role of technology since the impact of Covid-19?
There’s no escaping the fact that Covid-19 has been a nightmare and the impact has been felt painfully by the sports and broadcast industries. But what we’ve been pleased to learn is that the investments we’ve made into technology have paid off and our commitment to long term solutions, rather than cheap stopgaps, has paid off. The stakeholders relying on our virtual media hub are in familiar territory. The portal has WTA branding so the user experience for our stakeholders hasn’t had to change.
Keeping the sport alive is about serving the fans right now. The organisations that were exploring new ways to be innovative are now reaping the rewards – or at least feeling less pressure operationally – and women’s sports have often led the way. DAZN has always been at the helm of broadcasting tech, so we feel best placed to tackle the upheaval to event production. Tennis has, by its nature, been international so logistical efficiency has always been a question we’ve considered.
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