Chief Product Officer, Supponor
Supponor enables rights owners to maximize the value of live broadcast Sports & Entertainment events through world-leading end-to-end Virtual Advertising solutions, allowing partner and brand communications to be targeted and customized for each specific audience segment. Steve Plunkett, Chief Product Officer at Supponor, talks about the challenges brought by the Covid pandemic, and how the company helped its clients move to remote delivery at breakneck speed.
2020 and the uncertainty of Covid-19 forced Supponor to accelerate the implementation of its longer term plans for remote delivery of its services – and while challenging to deliver under such a compressed time line, it has helped us to become a stronger company today. The pressure to continue to support our clients, allowed us to innovate and develop our service offering to fit with the rapidly evolving demands of the industry. Sports broadcasting was luckier than some other industries, with live sporting events returning by the summer, helping to keep us productive and busier than many others less fortunate.
Creating and delivering Covid-secure workflows which would withstand the rigours of live event broadcasting was a challenging process. The Bundesliga was the first Tier 1 league to restart its halted season, and we were fortunate that our virtual advertising services were considered an essential part of the league’s restart plan – but with that good fortune, came an incredibly challenging learning curve as we had to learn how to maintain our demanding level of service quality with only half our normal on-site crew due to restrictions in the allocation of on-site staffing slots.
Starting out ahead of the curve on our planned pathway towards remote or off-site production helped tremendously, but suddenly we found ourselves playing catch up as the industry has leapt forward five years in its adoption of remote production operations since the start of Covid. The broadcast industry’s rapid shift requires businesses to iterate and innovate faster to release upgraded and new solutions at a much more aggressive pace. What used to take months to plan and introduce we now find ourselves handling multiple iterations of new technology deployment plans in a matter of weeks. Soon that will be days.
Ironically, for Supponor, pausing live sports worldwide helped with that acceleration. Like most companies in the live sports event industry, we have a typical weekly cycle. We have plans, we develop software, we add enhancements and new features, and then they are tested and deployed over the weekend, which inevitably leads to a debrief on Monday and an examination of how it all performed in the field. It’s almost a four days on, three days off cycle. But with everything halted, we found ourselves being able to work through and have a much more significant and smoother development cycle.
Was it ideal? Of course not, lockdown was a tough time for everyone. But we were fortunate to not have to lose any staff so that we could leverage the time away from production to accelerate our development processes and to build in extra capacity and new capabilities that are now proving invaluable as we emerge fully into the active part of 2021.
Remote production has been a huge part of that. We had to adopt software, processes and even hardware from the way it's been used historically so that everything we have done so well onsite for many years could be deployed fully remotely. There were powerful features already defined in our roadmap relating to remote production, that few of our customers were ready to embrace pre-Covid, and those were rapidly brought to the forefront as interest and demand grew. We had to develop components around software, and add in additional remote control and remote sharing tooling into our software stack as we found ourselves suddenly working remotely at events all around the world made all the more challenging with border closures and travel restrictions.
A good example of this was a live test we conducted on a match played in Colombia, South America last year. Nobody from Supponor was at the stadium, nobody was even in Colombia; everything was operated live from London where we were creating the virtually modified feeds. This would likely still have been possible without the Covid experience, but we would probably still have had people in the stadium as a back-up. It’s forced us to lean heavily on the technology and ensure its failsafe robustness in live operation.
A lot of it went further than we thought it would. It had always been theoretically possible to work from home and be driving virtual signage in North and South America, but nobody took it seriously pre-Covid. Now it is not only taken seriously, it has become the new normal in our industry.
Will that remain the case in the post-Covid era? We’re not sure. Some of the gains made by the widespread adoption of remote production will very much be part of the future landscape; the environmental and cost benefits are too compelling to ignore. But we suspect that will consolidate into a middle ground, where centralised production from dedicated facilities and production hubs becomes the normal workflow rather than people working from their kitchen tables. It’s good to have the ability to be able to do that hugely distributed home-based workflow, and who knows precisely what the future holds when it comes to the need to adopt bio-secure working practices. But we see the synergies of assembling staff together into centralised production hubs as being irresistible to companies and people alike as human interaction will still be valued. People will no longer unnecessarily travel from venue to venue, but teams in production hubs will produce several concurrent games in a single shift.
But the key here really is flexibility. We have built a very solid offering; the software is robust, our technology is reliable and production-proven — no-one else has 10 years of experience in the field with this. That allows us to be agile and respond quickly to market demands.
That has seen us in good stead during the pandemic, and it will see us in good stead in the future when we start to move onwards to deploying other new technologies. The sports broadcasting industry was brought to a dead halt very rapidly by Covid, but it has adapted with impressive speed and is already racing ahead once more.
Development in fields such as cloud-native deployments and Augmented Reality is, if anything, even faster than before and rapidly catching up with the progress made in remote production. As fans come back to stadiums, arenas, pitches, and racetracks around the world, 2021 and onward is going to be a very exciting period to be working in sports broadcasting, whether from a production hub, an onsite truck, or even on your kitchen table.
- Digital Transformation
- Immersive (i.e. video and audio)
- At-home/Remote Production