Southfields Centralizes Country-Wide Sports Production With TriCaster®
When one in four of your nation’s citizens actively plays the world’s most popular sport, and in another sport your national women’s team is the most successful team in World Cup history, chances are you have a lot of fans eager to watch competitions.
This is true for the Netherlands, a small country that’s home to 17 million people, more than 4.5 million of whom are registered soccer players at its 35,000 sports clubs. That’s a quarter of the country’s population.
But soccer (a.k.a. football) is just part of the story. According to Olympics coverage during the Rio games, field hockey’s popularity in the Netherlands is booming too, with around 253,000 men and women playing club hockey there, or one in 67 residents.
Playing these sports is one thing; watching them is another. Both football and field hockey—or simply hockey as it’s called here—are wildly popular among Dutch spectators.
And their popularity just keeps growing, especially as 2nd division (Tweede Divisie) football and premiere league (Hoofdklasse)hockey develop internationally and gain more exposure through television coverage.
The trick is to broadcast enough matches for fans on game days, from any of the venues scattered across the Netherlands. And that’s what Southfields set out to do.
Growth of a Fan Base
Southfields is a Holland-based television producer that specializes in sports productions. The company regularly provides OB (outside broadcast) coverage of large football and hockey competitions for major Dutch broadcasters Fox Sports and Ziggo Sport—including in-house production for nearly 85% of the latter’s programming.
Its sports production further extends to Champions League and exhibition games (called friendly matches) of the national football team, produced for Ziggo as well as for the SBS-owned Veronica TV.
But Southfields’s reach has expanded beyond live game production, growing into broadcast rights as well. The company has exclusive production and exploitation rights in Holland for second division football and for primary league men’s and women’s field hockey.
Ten years ago, the Euro Hockey League (EHL, the equivalent of the soccer Champions League—of which Southfields is 33% owner) formed. The EHL had pioneered new competition rules that made games far more exciting and spectator-friendly. Its new rules were adopted as regulation for the Olympic Games and all major tournaments, and voila – the fan base exploded.
“It was really important that we show all the matches, not just the championship teams,” according to Maarten Verstraete, Southfields’ manager of technical projects and sports management. “Each game is just as important for the lower teams as it is for the leading clubs. That is what makes a competition a competition.”
It also translates into an exceptionally large amount of coverage, since Southfields was committed to distributing not only the prominent matches throughout the season, but all matches played in a given weekend.
That could mean 9 football matches in one day, and 12 hockey matches in one day—with multiple start times and many games to cover at once.
More Matches, More Content
What’s more, broadcasters wanted the content just as much as the fans did.
Arnout van der Hoek, workflow consultant with NewTek elite reseller Lines Broadcast BV in the Netherlands, says, “Sports has grown so enormously in Holland, that the broadcasters needed more matches. Southfields covered championships, they covered all the big games – and the broadcasters still wanted more content, more league matches.”
Holding the rights to EHL, Hoofdklasse Hockey and Tweede Divisie games would give Southfields the ability to provide them.
But adding hundreds of games in a single season would be incredibly expensive (if not impossible) with the traditional OB production truck model.
Southfields’ Verstraete says, “When you have this quantity of matches to produce, if you have matches at one o’clock and three o’clock, then at six and nine o’clock, you cannot just say, ‘Okay, give me 23 OB vans, let them cross all over the Netherlands.’”
“At that point,” he says, “we needed to develop a new system to get the distribution quickly from the pitch to the viewer.”
A Cross-Country Workflow
Most production companies take their workflow to the stadium. But Southfields figured they should bring the stadiums into their workflow.
First, Verstraete and his colleagues looked at the resources they had available.
“The Netherlands has a nice infrastructure with glass fiber,” says Verstraete. “That’s a really positive side of the Netherlands. It’s small but really has a great infrastructure.” That meant that wherever they produced coverage, they’d be able to connect it easily over a distance. So they contracted with a company to perform line control of every stadium they worked with in 2nd division and Hoofdklasse Hockey, ensuring 24/7 service.
Then they looked at production locations. The municipality of Hilversum, reasonably central to all the regions in the Netherlands (and widely known as the “media city” because of its numerous broadcasters and studios), was already very well interconnected with high speed data from throughout the country.
Hilversum is also home to NEP The Netherlands, a centralized facility for editing, playout and storage, with global dark fiber connectivity that can carry vastly more data at higher speeds than Ethernet.
Most importantly, says Verstraete, “NEP has the LiveCenter where we can easily patch our signals through, and link it from the stadiums directly to our multisport room.”
In one central location, Southfields had found a single, network-based replacement for 23 physical OB vans. Best of all, they could outfit the facility affordably – with only four TriCasters®.
Playing Sports All Over The Network
“We were interested in all-in-one production systems such as TriCaster, because with sports, there are some capabilities that are absolutely necessary,” says Verstraete. “We knew what it would take to produce these games.”
In other words, in sports, it isn’t just about switching cameras.
The content Southfields produces demanded constant access to graphics capabilities, slow-motion replays, and audio—coming in not only from the field, but also from play-by-play commentary delivered in the production center—as well as recordings of camera feeds from every match taking place.
Verstraete developed a plan to capture all of these various feeds (from each of 14 venues that may have games that day), no matter which matches would be broadcast on the sports channels or which would be packaged for highlights.
Camera operators would go to every game as usual, only instead of cabling their cameras back to a truck they’d connect via SDI into Southfield’s encoders to carry it into the data network.
From the moment of the opening whistle, from every match simultaneously, the game footage would be encoded and transmitted to the LiveCenter over fiber.
From The Pitch To The Viewer
Imagine having the entire country’s sports coverage pulled into one matrix, and making it available to everyone producing a game. That’s how Southfields assigns camera feeds and sources to their TriCasters.
“Once the feeds are in the LiveCenter we can say, ‘Okay, use these camera sources for TriCaster number one, those camera sources for TriCaster number two. Then send these others directly to edit’” when it’s a match that will be edited for highlights, says Verstraete. “We can divide sources on the fly, per match, wherever we need them to be produced.”
Using their TriCaster systems became even easier with the use of NDI®, NewTek’s technology for video over IP, he says. “What we liked was that we can share everything, all the sources we have, in any machine that’s on the network.”
With NDI, and their 10Gb network connectivity allows them to have one program produced in a certain machine, while another system on the network can pull in the first match’s sources and use them in a second production.
Or, says Verstraete, “it can be available to anyone on the network, so if somebody has to narrate the highlights later on, he can already watch the match on his laptop.”
He says NDI made a big difference in choosing TriCaster.
“Sooner or later, as more manufacturers support it, all the parts in the workflow will be compatible with NDI. Then at a certain point, we can just get all our footage from the pitch, to our production room over NDI. Then I won’t need SDI anymore.”
Test and Repeat
To make this innovative production process work, their systems had to achieve the same visual quality as they could produce in one of their typical OB programs. So they put TriCaster through its paces.
According to Verstraete, “The things we were looking for were factors like the video encoding of the TriCaster, whether it would be suitable for what we needed. Would the recordings be usable, and if so, in what ways could we use them? What’s the program output of the whole system going to look like? How does it compare to a high-end unit?”
They tested the concept at a championship tennis match, and then did a test with an EHL game. They transmitted over satellite for broadcast, but simultaneously sent a second signal through their remote production encoders into the TriCaster back at the LiveCenter, and compared them.
The side-by-side comparison involved a long process of configuring, testing, modifying, and testing again. They focused on evaluating the actual quality of pictures—how it would look to a viewer—as opposed to merely confirming that the signal was successfully encoded in H.264 or H.265.
“We were in a building that was being rebuilt and it was still not ready yet, and there was this TriCaster in front of us and everybody watching behind us,” says Verstraete. “At a certain moment, it was time to test—and then it was the moment of truth. ‘It worked, it worked!’ It was really goosebumps all over the place.”
TriCaster achieved the production quality they required in the workflow they designed, and now Southfields uses four of them to provide production to the dozens of matches that take place every week, enabling fans to get closer to the teams playing the sports they love – even if they’re not the championship team.
“The nice thing about the production environment we operate now,” says Verstraete, “is that by bringing more games to the viewers, we can get the lower levels of competition to be as heavily involved with TV coverage as the higher ones, and that’s very exciting to everyone.”
And that, Southfield knows, is what it takes to make sports.
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