Broadcasting, Fan Engagement & Beyond: How 5G Will transform The Sports Industry

June 25, 2019

5G mobile networks are rolling out around the world, offering faster speeds, greater capacity and ultra-low latency. The new applications powered by 5G will change the worlds of business, entertainment and society – and sport is not immune to this transformation.

Already we can see how 5G will change the way sport is broadcast, how organisations interact with fans, and even how sport is played in the future.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the arrival of 5G represents the most significant development in the history of mobile networks. Like previous generations, such as 3G and 4G, 5G will deliver faster speeds but the true revolution will come in the form of greater capacity and ultra-low latency.

This will enable a range of new consumer services and a whole raft of business applications that will transform virtually every industry.

Sport is no exception. The arrival of 5G networks promises to accelerate Digital Transformation, opening up new revenue streams and allowing organisations to understand more about their customers.

The broadcast revolution

One of the most developed use cases for 5G is broadcasting – something which has obvious relevance to the sports industry. 5G will revolutionise how sport is televised around the world, enhancing creative options and reducing costs.

Broadcasters will be able to experiment with new content formats, cover more events simultaneously, and improve the standard of coverage of sports that take place over a large geographic area, such as cycling, skiing and golf.

Production of a live football match usually involves multiple cameramen, miles of cable, and on-site production facilities. The execution and setup of this process is labour and time intensive, increasing costs and limiting the reach of the broadcaster.

Mobile-based production has long been seen as a way overcoming these challenges, but efforts have been constrained by the speeds and capacity of 4G networks. 5G is far more suited because it is faster and more reliable, while a feature called ‘network slicing’ effectively ringfences capacity and speed for broadcasters.

This means transmissions won’t be affected no matter how many people are in a stadium.

Remote production

UK mobile operator trialled 5G broadcasting late last year for the EE Wembley Cup. Cameramen were equipped with 5G-enabled cameras (with transmission equipment located in a backpack), eliminating the need for wires and reducing the number of cameramen required.

The low latency of the networks meant that pictures could be sent back to BT Sport’s studios, making the production truck redundant. This means that in the future, production teams can be based in one place, raising the possibility of working on multiple events across different sports in a single day.

“All of our teams re back at the studio so there’s consistency,” said BT Sport COO Jamie Hindhaugh. “All the cameras are wireless, which allows us to do things differently. It also drives efficiency … it’s a dirty word … but it allows us to do more with less.

“It will allow us to cover more live matches from more leagues and competitions, and to bring fans highlights action closer to the final whistle than has ever been done before.”

And it’s not just football. Golf is looking at 5G broadcasting in order to make covering 18 holes more efficiently, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) worked with Intel to provide 5G-based coverage at several events at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Stadium technology

5G will transform the experience of physically attending events too. The provision of connectivity has been a priority for venue operators ever since the advent of the smartphone, but capacity has been an issue.

Enhanced Wi-Fi networks and on-site improvement to 4G have helped ease the situation, but the arrival of 5G and its high-capacity mobile spectrum will allow more people to connect in a single location than ever before.

This is important for two reasons. The first is that some sports organisations – particularly in the US – fear that the remote viewing experience is so good that some fans won’t want to watch in person because they can’t access social media, official applications, and video content like they can on their sofa. 5G connectivity will ensure spectators always have a fast, reliable connection to do just that.

The second reason is that it will allow venues to engage with fans during the game, gathering more data about the people that attend their events, and target them with offers based on their location.

Although high capacity Wi-Fi can perform many of these tasks, it can be difficult to retrofit an existing arena. For example, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium has an advanced fixed network capable of supporting high-capacity Wi-Fi but this was included at an early stage of construction.

Research from Amdocs and Ovum suggests 91% of the world’s leading mobile operators plan to hold trials of 5G sporting experiences at stadiums. Wembley Stadium will be covered by EE’s 5G network, while Telefonica is bringing permanent 5G coverage to the pitch and the stands at Barcelona’s Nou Camp, while hundreds across Europe will be covered through commercial rollouts.

New types of content

It goes without saying that 5G will improve the live streaming experience, but it will also enable the production and distribution of new types of content for fan engagement. Indeed, Ovum believes the first time many consumers interact with 5G will be through sport.

Two third of mobile operators plan to offer 5G-enabled Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) sporting experiences to customers, including instant VR replays, 360-degree streams, or AR-powered statistic applications that overlay graphics on top of live content.

Fans could find themselves transported to any seat in an arena, or even watch an entire match as a on your coffee table in 3D. A prototype system called “Soccer on Your Tabletop” can convert any football video on YouTube into a hologram that can be projected onto a flat surface suing a dedicated AR headset.

The enhanced speed and capacity of 5G is obviously important here, but the ultra-low latency is essential for applications like VR. Because smartphones are designed to be as light and thin as possible, they lack the necessary processing power for advanced applications. This means processing will take place in the cloud, meaning the speed at which data is transmitted must be as low as possible to enable real-time experiences.

Where is the limit?

Having already conquered most areas of our personal and professional lives, mobile technology is an essential part of the sporting experience for many. 5G will only accelerate this shift, changing the way sport is produced and viewed and the way in which organisations interact with fans.

But where is the limit? Could 5G change the way sport is played? Some golfers use VR software to replicate the experience of playing some the world’s most famous courses before they even get there.

It’s also not outside the realms of possibility that the ultra-low latency of 5G means a racing driver could control a Formula One car from their living room, greatly reducing risk.

But perhaps the biggest revolution will come in coaching. 5G-powered AR holograms could give aspiring athletes access to the best coaches in the world regardless of their location.

Late last year, Vodafone raised the possibility when it powered the UK’s first 5G holographic phone call with England Women’s football captain Steph Houghton. To illustrate the point, Houghton engaged in a series of keepie-uppies with a young fan.

Like just about every other part of society, 5G has the capacity to transform just about every area of sport. We should believe the hype.

Steve covers sport and technology for Forbes