Amazon works with Israeli AI company WSC Sports for Premier League debut

(Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

Amazon has enlisted the services of an Israeli artificial intelligence (AI) company, WSC Sports, to produce an interactive replay function in its coverage of the English Premier League which begins this Tuesday.

The e-commerce giant will broadcast a full round of Premier League games on December 3rd and 4th and an entire schedule of matches on Boxing Day (26th December) and 27th December. This week’s games will be the first time since the formation of the Premier League that all ten matches are broadcast live without pay-TV broadcaster Sky involved in any coverage.

Sources say AI technology from WSC Sports will be used to rapidly select and edit highlight clips that users will be able to access alongside the live match feed from any of the 10 games being shown in Amazon’s coverage this week. The highlights will combine with data from sports analytics firm, Opta Sports, part of the Stats Perform group, to provide an interactive ‘X-Ray’ function that effectively allows users to ‘direct’ their own coverage, pulling out data and replays according to their preferences.

Viewers on web, mobile and Fire TV will be able to access the additional functionality which will display the highlight clips and statistics at the side or bottom of the screen. Audiences watching on mobile devices will be able to switch the service on by rotating their phones into portrait mode.

Earlier this year, Amazon enlisted production company Sunset+ Vine and BT Sport, the pay-TV broadcaster with live rights to the English top flight, to produce its studio and live match day programming from the Premier League.

WSC Sports uses machine learning to find the most exciting moments in a sporting event and systematically breaks a match into hundreds of individually tagged packages that can be used to tell a story in different ways. Data points such as the sound of the crowd or the position of a player on the pitch help to categorise a clip and inform decisions about how it is used.

The company already works with the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Bundesliga and J.League to package highlight clips for social media and localise content for specific audiences. WSC also works with several other OTT providers to produce real-time highlights programming similar to that being provided by Amazon.

Amazon is eager to make a statement with its coverage of the Premier League having been widely criticised for its presentation of last year’s US Open tennis tournament. The company suspended reviews of its coverage after it was inundated with complaints about picture and sound quality.

The firm, which is famous for its test-and-learn culture, has subsequently ironed out many of the problems in its coverage of the ATP Tour, although concerns persist about its ability to stream so many Premier League matches concurrently – especially given the issues suffered by Eleven Sports, Eurosport and DAZN when launching new streaming offerings. Last week it was reported Amazon employees were worried that the company had underestimated the size of the task in what will effectively be one of the biggest streaming events in sport.

Charlie Beall, consultant with digital agency Seven League, told SportBusiness: “If anyone can do it, it’s Amazon with their AWS [Amazon Web Services] cloud computing capacity. There’s going to be quite a big load on the platform, which I think from a live concurrency point of view will be interesting, but I don’t expect it to fall down.”

However, Amazon acknowledges the viewing experience will also depend on another factor which is beyond its control: the quality of broadband infrastructure in the UK.

In an interview with Broadcast Sport in September Alex Green, head of sports and channels, Europe for Amazon Prime Video said: “We’ve been working with the main UK broadband providers to make sure that they’re getting ready because we don’t run the entire piece end to end to the customer, we are reliant on the way customers are accessing the internet.”

The company will have watched New Zealand telco Spark’s travails in streaming coverage of the New Zealand All Black’s games in the recent Rugby World Cup with trepidation because they demonstrate the potential for negative publicity when technical issues prevent a passionate fan base from watching their chosen sport. Viewing of Sparks’ exclusive coverage was interrupted for several thousand households owing to the poor broadband infrastructure in rural parts of the rugby-mad country.

The Premier League will want the coverage to succeed – both from a production perspective and in driving subscriptions to Amazon Prime – in the hope it encourages the firm to table a larger bid for a package of media rights in the next cycle. The company is estimated to have paid somewhere between £21m ($27.14m/€24.6m) and £30m ($38.77m/ €35.14m) per season for the rights to 20 matches a season from 2018-19 to 2020-21.

Wayne Sieve, a media technology expert with data science company Thuuz, said the fact Amazon had purchased a bundle of matches around Boxing Day and Black Friday, two of the biggest dates in the retail calendar, proved its business model was different to traditional pay-TV broadcasters. This made him sceptical that the company had a similar incentive to bid for larger bundles of matches.

He said: “Broadcasters need to build momentum over extended periods of time. They need to attract brands to spend over extended periods of time and Amazon just faces an entirely different reality. If you bought the entire season, I’d be curious to see what the overall ROI would be because you’re going to get a lot of days where you’re not getting a similar ROI as you would around those games that are near Black Friday and Boxing Day.”

Beall predicted that Amazon would do a post-campaign assessment of how its Premier League coverage drove engagement and acquisition of Prime subscribers before making a decision whether to retain or expand its media rights deal in the next cycle. However, he too remained sceptical that the company would make an investment to surpass Sky or BT’s domestic deals for the Premier League given it already offers multiple Prime benefits to retain users.

Beall observed: “This is the reckoning that sports rights have: they’re not value for money. Especially when a major platform doesn’t need them to acquire users. Sports rights have their value and their power and ability to lever business models, whether they are broadcast subscription models, or ad revenue models or even OTT subscription models, but Amazon has a valuable subscription model that’s been built without sports rights.”

Read this: Amazon Premier League deal shows tech giant still learning

* This article was corrected at 18.00 on Tuesday 3 December. Originally the article stated that WSC technology was being used to produce highlight clips for Amazon’s Goal Centre programme. This has been corrected to state that the technology will generate highlight clips for Amazon’s interactive X-Ray function on web, mobile and Fire TV devices.