- Working with promoter Frank Warren, BT Sport hosted first live boxing in the UK since lockdown began
- Broadcaster took lessons from work on return of Bundesliga and Premier League football
- Jamie Hindhaugh, chief operating officer of BT Sport, says remote production points way towards broadcaster’s future
The UK’s lockdown was only a few weeks old when boxing promoter Frank Warren began exploring how he might be able to return the sport to viewers’ screens.
It was mid-May when Warren, founder of Queensberry Promotions, approached his broadcast partners at BT Sport with a proposal to stage the country’s first live fights since March 7, and to do it in a way that respected the government advice and protected the health and safety of everyone involved.
Jamie Hindhaugh, chief operating officer of BT Sport, recalls a reaction of amusement at BT Sport when the idea was first pitched.
“It wasn’t just about the challenges of putting it on,” he says, “but the very idea of socially-distanced boxing. How do you do this sport without contact? Without anyone getting hurt? Then you look at the number of people involved, the fact that we wouldn’t have an audience to provide the atmosphere. You can imagine that the initial reaction was the same across the business.
“But actually, as we started to look at it more closely and investigate the different ways we could do this, we thought, ‘yes, this is possible to do in a way that will make great content and will serve our audience and, hopefully, bring a bit more normality back to life in general.’”
Eventually, the proposal saw BT Sport not only producing and broadcasting the fights, but hosting them, too. On July 10 – just six weeks after Warren first pitched the idea – the broadcaster converted its own east London studio into a small-scale boxing arena, hosting a full card of five fights, involving the physical presence of as small a number of people as possible. Even Warren himself stayed away, watching from home as Brad Foster defended his British and Commonwealth super-bantamweight titles against James Beech Jr in the headline bout.
All ten fighters all remained in isolated “bubbles” until called for their matches, arriving to the ring accompanied only by their cuts and a cornerman. Everyone at the venue had their temperature checked on entry, the referees wore face masks at all times, and what little production staff – including the commentators – were on-site were shielded behind perspex screens, well away from the action. “Logistically it was a real challenge, but it worked because everyone was pulling in the same direction,” says Hindhaugh.
Learning from football’s return
A key moment in BT Sport’s decision to go ahead with this ambitious plan, Hindhaugh says, was the return of German football’s Bundesliga in May. While football and boxing may appear to have little in common, Hindhaugh says that many of the technical learnings around remote production and broadcasting from airing the first live sport to be shown in Europe since the lockdown were valuable across the business.
“It was quite different in that obviously we just take the feed for that – it comes to us from Germany already produced,” he says. “But we run that through our gallery and add our own replays, our own graphics, our own commentary, almost all of which was done from staff’s homes. Later the return of the Premier League allowed us to do a little bit more, scale up that side of things. It’s still a smaller operation than hosting a live event, but all of these iterations through lockdown, all these different learnings, have enabled us to have confidence that we could stage the event and do the production justice.”
When it came to the editorial conversations about how to approach live boxing, there were decisions to be made about precisely which lessons from football should be applied. “With football, I think my biggest learning – and it was something I hadn’t fully appreciated before – is how important audio is,” Hindhaugh says.
When BT Sport first began to show the resumed Bundesliga season, it did so with no additional audio, just the commentary and what the mics in the stadiums picked up. When the Premier League rolled around, BT began offering viewers a choice to watch the game with synthetic crowd noise – something that was initially controversial, but which Hindhaugh feels “made such a difference, because sounds signpost the action, it pinpoints different elements of what’s going on.”
With boxing, however, the decision was taken early on to not add any sounds, to let the sounds of the boxers in the ring be the only signposts. “We thought, let’s not complicate it. Let’s not assume that one solution fits all. We felt it was an opportunity to make it a bit more intimate. With everything that we do, we try and transport people to be there at the event, and we felt that being able to hear them moving, hear their feet skidding on the canvas, hear the punches landing, it really put you much closer to the action and, we hope, replicate the feeling of actually being there in the arena. Very few people have experienced being in the front-row seats right next to the ring, and it almost felt like you were getting that insight, that level of intimacy.”
Serving the different segments of BT Sport’s audience and giving boxing fans that opportunity to be virtually at the ring-side was another key reason that the broadcaster was open to Warren’s push for boxing’s return. While football remains BT’s major sports draw, its relationship with Queensberry Promotions, as well as its acquisitions of the rights to UFC and WWE, has seen it pick up a significant combat sports subscriber base, helping to diversify audiences and therefore revenues through advertisement sales.
“Boxing is certainly one of the key pillars of our commercial growth, and where possible we want to ensure that we’re providing audiences with the full range of sports that they expect,” he says.
Remote production “always part of the roadmap”
While the concept of hosting a full card of boxing action was novel, especially in their own studio, Hindhaugh says that BT Sport has been working in the direction of remote production for some years now, with the intention of transitioning the majority of its processes so that staff don’t need to be physically present at events.
“Obviously it’s not really possible to prepare for something like a pandemic, but a lot of what we’ve been working towards has meant that we’ve been able to bring a lot of that work forward and use it to our advantage during the lockdown.”
Remote production had been on BT Sport’s “roadmap” for three years, he says, with the idea being to take an “hourglass approach” – as Hindhaugh explains, “to centralise our remote productions by not having to have as many people on site, do more from our centre, but then take some of those roles and decentralise into people’s homes or other locations.”
“In some ways, it doesn’t change that much,” he says. “If you’re doing a live Premier League game, you’re in a truck in a carpark next to the event. All we’re doing is taking the wheels off that truck and either putting it back at our headquarters in Stratford, or putting some of the seats in people’s homes. You’ve still got talk back, you still communicate in the same way, you’re still connected up. The challenges really are more cultural than logistical, but our teams have been brilliant in adapting after we had no choice in adopting and maintaining that way of working.”
In the long-term, the pandemic will ultimately accelerate BT Sport’s transition towards remote production as a standard, with July’s boxing seen as a successful trial run for future events. With the rollout of 5G internet in the UK ongoing – and BT playing a central role in that – Hindhaugh says that decentralisation and remote production is becoming “the right way to do things creatively, commercially and environmentally.”
“The sustainability point is particularly important, because you’re significantly reducing the amount of travel involved,” he says. “You can use one team to cover more than one event, because you’re not having to move from venue to venue, only the camera ops have to move. You can create synergies so that teams can work more closely together, get used to working together. It helps with diversity and inclusion, which is really important to us, as it means we can have more accessible workplaces, be more open for employment. On a personal level for our production and commentary teams, it’s important for their wellbeing, because if you’re doing a league game at the moment, you could be away for two nights with travelling. Whereas now you can do it from home, or from our studio or one of the remote operating centres we’re building across the UK, and be home an hour after the game.
“That’s a huge positive that has come out of this and something I think we have to embrace. It was on our roadmap already, but the coronavirus constraints have helped us implement it far more quickly.”