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Virtual advertising technology unlocks split sponsorship inventory and multi-lingual graphics for Formula One

(Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

  • Director of broadcast and media says DRT ‘cleaner and more cost-effective’
  • Sponsorship and data rights partnership with ISG ‘predicated’ on the technology
  • Production team have also overhauled world feed to reinforce dynamism and speed of sport

Formula One is likely to step up the use of digital replacement technology (DRT) in its global broadcast feed following last September’s sponsorship and data rights partnership with Interregional Sports Group (ISG). 

DRT allows sponsor logos and graphics to be represented ‘virtually’ on advertising boards and other trackside assets and creates the potential for split sponsorship inventory in F1 coverage. It could enable the sport to sell the same trackside assets multiple times depending on the region where its content is being viewed. More contentiously, it can also be used to make sponsor messages more impactful by integrating them into architecture or other blank spaces in the broadcast feed.

Speaking at the Sport Industry Breakfast club in early May, Sean Bratches, F1’s managing director, commercial operations, said the introduction of DRT was instrumental in the partnership with ISG. Under the deal, ISG will have the right to sub-license betting partnership rights to select betting brands around the world. F1 will offer the ability to sell regionalised on-screen graphics and physical and virtual trackside signage.

“It was predicated on their ability to go to specific regions and sell to betting parties in those particular regions,” said Bratches. “I’m not sure if they’ve signed any deals yet. They may have, but we haven’t started activating it. But from a technological standpoint we’re delivering the requisite feeds.”

Customised feeds

The sport has been experimenting with virtual technology for some time and has built out its expertise in delivering customised feeds to different regions. Its favoured solutions provider is Vizrt, a company that has developed an unobtrusive DRT solution that does not require any additional lenses to be put on cameras for it to work.

“We’ve been doing virtual advertising for a long time and most people don’t really know because it’s so good,” F1’s director of broadcast and media, Dean Locke tells SportBusiness. “It was originally used to put advertising where you couldn’t put advertising, but it became such a reliable process that actually it was cleaner and more cost effective [than static trackside advertising].”

F1 employed Vizrt technology to superimpose an image of Bernie Ecclestone onto the track during the former chief executive’s tenure to promote a drink driving safety campaign as part of Heineken’s worldwide partnership with the sport.

Its use of the technology at the Singapore Grand Prix in 2016 forced broadcast regulators to revisit the rules around product placement in sports programming. F1 stood accused of taking its use of DRT too far when it superimposed the image of a giant watch face from worldwide partner Rolex onto the Singapore Flyer – the giant ferris wheel that sits alongside the Marina Bay circuit – during the qualifying session for the race.

DRT was used to project a giant image of a Rolex watch face onto the Singapore Flyer during qualifying for the Grand Prix in 2016.

Ofcom, the British broadcast regulator, deemed that the graphic contravened rule 9.5 of its Broadcast Code, which prohibits products, services or trademarks from being given ‘undue prominence’ during programming and placed the British broadcast rights-holders, Sky and Channel 4, under investigation. Sky called for leniency, arguing that its contract with F1 stipulated that it had to broadcast the world feed live, while Channel 4 argued that the time between the live broadcast and its highlights show left no room to edit the Rolex image out of its coverage. Ofcom cleared Sky but found Channel 4 in breach of its code.

The regulator said both broadcasters also raised concerns to Formula One Management (FOM) about the appearance of the Rolex image in the world feed and no sponsor image has been shown so prominently since.

Global feed

F1 began the process of taking its production operation away from local broadcasters in 2004 to deliver a more consistent media product. It has been providing a global feed to all of its media partners since around 2008.

After Liberty Media acquired the sport, it has moved to differentiate this feed for specific markets. It now produces three regional feeds: one to the Asian marketplace, one to the Americas and one to Europe, and also offers an international feed that goes out as an overlay in the event that it is needed.

Locke said the only limitation on a more extensive deployment of DRT were the difficulties involved in setting it up the technology in a sport where no event is the same from a production perspective.

“Stadium sports are generally a lot easier to do,” he says. “You can put a camera on a ledge that doesn’t really move. With us, we are building it, taking it down, all within four or five days under huge time pressures.”

But one virtual advertising expert contacted by SportBusiness felt it was easier to make the signage appear natural in a F1 setting than in football. This is because views of the large run-off areas and trackside assets on most circuits are rarely impeded by passing cars whereas football players regularly pass in front of pitchside virtual assets in football coverage which can create an unsettling halo effect for the television viewer.

Multi-lingual graphics

A further benefit of DRT is that it will allow F1 to tailor the language of its on-screen graphics to specific audiences. At the moment, F1 is able to provide its graphics in four different languages, but it is close to being able to put local graphics into every single market where its races are shown.

Locke says the changes are consistent with attempts to overhaul the world feed and make the sport more accessible to new fans while not losing sight of its more knowledgeable core audience. To this end, F1 has employed the services of an emoji designer to create new, on-screen symbols that explain race events and team strategies intuitively.

The introduction of the cockpit halo has provided additional space in the middle of the screen for new graphics.

His production team have also experimented with new camera positions and techniques to give a greater sense of the speed and dynamism of the sport.

“It’s really hard, I’ve spent 21 years trying to do it,” he says. “The camera does seem to kill the speed of the cars. Sometimes it’s the way you cut it.

“Some of our camera men are actually almost too smooth through some of the shots and actually it’s a question of making it look a little bit more violent. Just waiting for the pan until the car’s completely in frame and then snapping it around.”

He added that some of the on-screen footage of Ayrton Senna racing in the 1980s and 90s that reappeared in Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary about the Brazilian driver had put his team under pressure to make the modern coverage appear as exciting.

“Our head of onboard cameras hates that clip,” he says. “Unfortunately, the cars aren’t that violent [anymore]. But we’ve done things like taking the dampening out of cameras, looking at the actual lenses, cropping in a little bit tighter.”

The impact of all of the new graphics and camera techniques on F1 audiences are tested by the sport’s new in-house research team. “Never before have we had access to this research department that we have now. That is a real game changer for us because we can test things out and we can get feedback quite quickly,” says Locke.

The sport broke new ground at last year’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone when it conducted a biometric study of 60 fans to identify their responses to its TV coverage.

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