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Sportway and Swedish Ice Hockey Federation sign five-year AI production deal

(from l to r) Mars Larsson (SIF board member), Anders Nilsson (CEO Live Arena) Jonas Persson, (chairman Sportway), Christer Plars (SIF head of commercial), Anders Larsson (SIF president), Daniel Franck (CEO Sportway)

Sportway, the Swedish production and live streaming firm backed by leading sports industry figures in the Nordic region, has signed a five-year agreement with the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation (SIF) to manage the rollout of an artificial intelligence production infrastructure.

Sportway has become a part owner of svenskhockey.tv, the federation’s streaming service, and the associated Svensk Hockey TV AB company, taking the operational lead on the AI production project.

The deal means that AI production systems will be in place at 162 ice hockey arenas across Sweden by the start of the 2020-21 season, with Svensk Hockey TV producing over 25,000 live matches.

Anders Larsson, the SIF president, said: “This is an important step for the development of ice hockey in Sweden nationwide. With this new investment, up to 70 per cent of all games played in Sweden from the age group of U12 up will be available live. The AI production system is an important tool to improve our sport at many levels.”

The matches in question do not include senior teams from the top three men’s divisions in Sweden (SHL, HockeyAllsvenskan and Hockeyettan), or the women’s top-tier SDHL, as those leagues have their own broadcast rights deals and production set-up in place.

However, the AI production set-up will be in use at some of Sweden’s leading ice hockey arenas as matches of SHL youth teams are produced and live streamed.

Sportway noted that Swedish ice hockey has a “long tradition of producing live games for streaming, but previously it has been manual productions carried out by volunteers”. The use now of an exclusive ‘cameraman’ algorithm and integration with the federation database, plus the generation of automatic graphics and scoreboard, represents a “significant step forward both in terms of the volume of matches but also the quality of the games produced”, Sportway added.

Sportway brings together former leading figures at the IEC in Sports agency, including Jonas Persson, Sportway’s chairman, and Daniel Franck, Sportway’s chief executive.

On the long-term deal Swedish ice hockey deal struck, Persson said: “Ice hockey is ideal for AI production. There are a limited number of playing grounds, predictable conditions for production since it is indoor, very well organised when it comes to scheduling and statistics.”

Franck added: “There are still some parts of the project that remain unaltered, i.e. the clubs and the federation enjoying financial benefits from the service. Our business model is based on low-pay subscription, yearly or monthly, and PPV [pay-per-view]. The clubs receive a kickback on their achieved sales.

“With the introduction of AI, we can fulfil our vision of making it financially viable to offer a huge number of games to a very small target group. It still makes financial sense since production costs are at a minimum without compromising on the quality of the output.”

The main supplier for the project is Live Arena, the Swedish AI production technology company. Live Arena is building the AI infrastructure based on 4K cameras and its tailor-made software.

During the 2019-20 season, about 7,500 live ice hockey matches were produced with AI technology in Sweden and Norway through different providers in projects with the SIF and the Norwegian Ice Hockey Association (NIHF). Those efforts have now been streamlined under one company.

Franck said: “The more games we produce the better the quality gets thanks to the continuous machine learning. Initially, we planned for youth and junior games, but now we already have strong interest from senior clubs and also junior national teams to be on our platform svenskhockey.tv.”

Sportway was founded in 2014 as it looked to work with federations, leagues and clubs in to create cost-effective production and online streaming platforms for rights-holders.

In 2017, the company received investment from DMC in Sports, the media rights and production company set up by Franck, Persson and Johan Hedblom, another member of the IEC in Sports alumni. DMC in Sports was brought on board to manage operations and for the provision of production, sales and technology resources.

Persson is also closely involved in the ice hockey sector in the Nordic region as chief executive of Commercial Sports Media, the Stockholm-based consultancy that has advised various leagues and federations on their media-rights distribution and valuation.