UK pay-TV broadcaster Sky today began its live coverage in earnest from women’s golf’s Solheim Cup, offering up a production output that matches the levels provided at the men’s 2018 Ryder Cup.
Sky has this week been presenting live from the Gleneagles course in Perthshire, Scotland in the lead up to this morning’s opening foursomes, including live coverage of the opening ceremony yesterday (Thursday) evening.
The live competitive action began this morning at 6.30am as Sky aims to replicate the depth of on-site production at last year’s Ryder Cup in Paris.
Speaking to SportBusiness exclusively this week at Gleneagles, Jason Wessely, Sky Sports’ head of golf, said: “We wanted to give the Solheim Cup the same treatment that the Ryder Cup got in 2018. That includes a full team here, build-up coverage each day and a Sky Zone [the interactive and tuition area] on the range.”
One production tweak this week to Sky’s Ryder Cup coverage is the elimination of the glass box in which the presenters usually sit.
Wessely stressed: “I feel strongly that you don’t want to a sport to be presented with people in a glass box anymore. You want them on the first tee. The great thing about working with the Solheim Cup organisers is they see that as well. To be right there showing the viewer what’s it like in actuality is going to be a great thing that we didn’t do that well in 2014 [at the Ryder Cup].”
The introduction of the Sky Zone and the “on-the-ground” presentation will mean that this week’s output represents an advancement, according to Wessely, on Sky’s coverage when its production team last came to Gleneagles for the 2014 Ryder Cup.
As the live Solheim Cup rights-holder in the UK and Ireland, Sky takes the raw feed from host broadcaster European Tour Productions – the joint venture between the European Tour and IMG – and then overlays it with its commentary, graphics and montages.
On top of the on-course cameras used by ETP to provide the core coverage, Sky is using nine RF cameras at Gleneagles. These are deployed at the Sky Zone, to present coverage from the first tee and during interviews around the course, or to capture slow-motions shots different to those that go out on the world feed.
Wessely did admit that the Sky Zone coverage at the 2018 Ryder Cup had not lived up to expectations due to the lack of players made available to Sky.
He noted: “At the 2018 Ryder Cup the Sky Zone perhaps didn’t work 100 per cent because we had limited access to the players. Understandably as it’s one of their biggest events but you want players to come into the Sky Zone and demo what they do and interact and engage.
“I’m hoping at the Solheim Cup that each afternoon the captains allow one of their players who aren’t playing to come into the Sky Zone and commentate live over her teammates’ playing and demonstrate a shot that they hit in the morning. That’s really something very different that we haven’t seen before.”
Asked about the most important technological innovation for golf coverage in recent years, Wessely cited Toptracer, the ball tracking technology. The technology provided by Swedish firm ProTracer (which was acquired in 2016 by Topgolf, Toptracer’s parent company) was first aired by Sky at the 2007 Solheim Cup in Halmstad, Sweden. That coverage was limited to one par 3 and was then further developed.
Wessely said: “To the European Tour’s credit, they were the first major Tour that developed it and now CBS and NBC have both adopted it in America. It’s the thing that makes the biggest innovative difference.
“It’s got to the stage now that when you’re watching coverage without it, you’re yearning for it.”
Sky Scope, AR, VR and learnings from Comcast
At this year’s Open Championship, the pay-TV broadcaster debuted its ‘Sky Scope’ technology, which recreated a virtual swing using 3D images of players and moving the camera around them (an extension of the player holograms already offered in the Sky studio). The project was a partnership with tournament sponsor Nikon and tournament organiser the R&A, along with camera robotics firm MRMC and VR production studio Dimension.
Wessely described it as a “worthwhile project” that he would love to develop further and offer it more often at the top golf tournaments.
He continued: “You can never afford to sit still. There’s always a view on the future. If there’s a product that comes about and you need to reinvest some funds from another area of golf production into this then I’m more than happy to do that.
“I’m always looking for the next thing. There was probably a spike in different innovations five years ago when they were all available.
“A lot of this is also up to the feeds involved and the networks we take. Our job is to show a world feed or a network feed if we’re in America and dress it with the Sky treatment. But really the core coverage is where the viewer wants the innovation investment to be spent.”
Wessely added: “We’ve got to work better with the providers, the networks and the governing bodies to make sure that core coverage increases. That’s where [the likes of] Toptracer, virtual graphics, floating yardages and club selections come in.”
Sky’s in-round interviews with players during European Tour events were also flagged up by Sky Sport’s head of golf as a way in which the broadcaster has worked in recent years to provide different perspectives in its coverage. Sky has made a big marketing play around the innovation and presenting talent its sports channels offer as it continues to fight subscriber churn amid increased (and cheaper) OTT viewing options.
Commenting on other technologies, Wessely observed: “AR and VR are worth pursuing. We don’t ever want to drop that particular ball because I think there is a bit of potential.
“But it’s second-screen viewing. I’m mainly concerned with the first-screen viewing and the digital output, and then VR is coming along on the inside track and hopefully becoming more and more part of that. We’ve got to engage young viewers and if that’s the way to do it then that’s what we’ll do.”
Following Sky’s £30.5bn (€34.3bn/$37.9bn) takeover by US media giant Comcast last year, the UK broadcaster has been able to take a close look under the bonnet at the golf productions put in place by the Comcast-owned Golf Channel and NBC Sports.
Given Golf Channel’s comparative lack of live rights and need therefore to produce more creative non-live content, Wessely said that Sky has learned from its new sister broadcaster. Golf Channel invests significantly in shoulder programming, build-up shows, magazine programmes and documentaries.
He remarked: “We’re learning and benefitting from all that content. And also the way they see golf. They see golf in the US as a lifestyle choice and not just a sporting watch. That’s been an eyeopener too.”