Project Managing The Creative Elements Of Live Sports Production

Huw Bevan is an Executive Producer, Consultant and Head of Cricket for Sunset+Vine, in London, one of the UK’s leading independent sports production companies that produces a full slate of rugby, soccer and cricket events each year. This interview with him brings insight into the role of the creative project manager and its crucial place in the techniques and technology of live sports broadcast production.

Live sports production is getting more complex, adding new specialty cameras, Augmented Reality graphics and other gear to an already outsized equipment arsenal, to help to bring viewers ever closer to the action. Managing those projects has become a full-time job in and of itself.

Producing Live Cricket Matches

Lately his work with Sunset + Vine has been focused on televising cricket matches in India and elsewhere. His core role as Executive Producer is to oversee the production project from a creative, operational and project management perspective. The technology is important - and he makes sure there’s enough of it, and it is set up in the right configuration - but understanding and deploying workflows that his clients favor is the most important part.

“The key is to make sure the client has everything they need to produce the event in the most efficient way within the budget that is at their disposal,” said Bevan. “We produce these live events on behalf of third parties, rights holders and governing bodies. That includes the creative teams that make the production sing. It means making sure the producers, directors and the technology and operational leads have what they need. Sunset + Vine provides the crews and technology.”

Production Partner Vs. Host Broadcaster

For some events Sunset + Vine acts as the “Production Partner” and other times they are considered the “Host Broadcaster.” The difference is subtle, but important for clients to understand.

“With cricket, there are 2 or 3 models that we generally work under,” said Bevan. “One is where we would classify ourselves as the Host Broadcaster. That means we are working with a league or a governing body of sport or a rights holder that is established either through a tender process or through a process of negotiation. They'll ask us to do everything for them; from providing the kit, the production crew, the graphics, and the creative - really the whole gamut of production related resources, through to delivery (via fiber or satellite).

Cricket matches are often covered using a combination of traditional and specialty cameras. Coordination is key.

Cricket matches are often covered using a combination of traditional and specialty cameras. Coordination is key.

“We can also assist with rights distribution and sales, but generally do not get involved in the rights acquisition process,” said Bevan. “When we are acting as the host broadcaster, we go out and we speak to facility companies. We do our own negotiations, due diligence, and tender processes as the case may be, depending on the event. There are a wide variety of suppliers, independent contractors that we use to put together a production plan according to whatever our [client] deliverables are.”

Sunset + Vine Is in the second year of a Host Broadcast arrangement for production of a relatively new cricket league in the UAE called the DP World ILT20 League. The first edition took place in early 2023, and the second season is currently in progress with the same six teams competing.

“We are providing everything there, and we are doing it not only in the English language as a classic host broadcast world feed, but are also producing a second feed in the Hindi language for the League’s Indian Rights Holder Zee Tv,” said Bevan.

Bevan also has responsibility for managing the Production Services that Sunset+Vine provides to Cricket’s World Governing Body - the International Cricket Council (ICC) which is headquartered in Dubai. This includes providing production services on their major multi team / multi venue ‘World Cup’ events around the world. This would be a production partner model arrangement.

Managing The Workflows

The ICC divides the services into 4 or 5 different Service components each of which are contracted through tender separately. These include equipment or on-site OB facilities, Graphics, Ball Tracking, Player Tracking and a variety of technology enhancements such as Wire Camera systems. Most recently Sunset+Vine has been contracted by the ICC to provide Production Services.

When OB vans are deployed, Grass Valley switchers, Sony cameras, Calrec mixing consoles and EVS replay systems support each telecast.

When OB vans are deployed, Grass Valley switchers, Sony cameras, Calrec mixing consoles and EVS replay systems support each telecast.

In this instance we provide essentially the core crew,” said Bevan said. “That means camera, replay and audio operators, producers, directors, vision mixers, and any support and logistics staff involved with that production. We also supply the match commentators and talent - there are typically anywhere between 5 and 8 deployed to call any one match.”

Inevitably there's a lot of travel and accommodation to be taken care of around these events as well. For a technical facilities provider, they typically work with NEP, which has its own contract with the ICC. Then there’s the provider of specialty systems like the SpiderCam, for player tracking, HawkEye, for ball tracking and data analytics used to tell the story being televised.

“So the ICC puts all of these suppliers in place and it’s Sunset+Vine’s job to manage it all and make sure it all works collaboratively,” he said. “For us, relationships really matter. While we are not privy to the commercial arrangements between the various organizations, we do know what the deliverables are and what the ICC’s vision and goal is for each event. It’s our job to manage the overall production process on the ICC’s behalf for each event.”

Flypacks Instead Of OB Vans

Geography and Location has a huge bearing on the production set ups on ICC events. Typically in India and the Sub-Continent, venues have been historically difficult to service by OB trucks, so the norm has been for matches to be covered by fly pack equipment set ups instead.

“In most cases with cricket production, we work with flight packs,” said Bevan. “The industry really has been traditionally dominated by flyaway setups especially in Asia and the Caribbean. These temporary setups (which can on some major productions include as many as eight units of 30 cameras apiece) can also be required to move between venues by road, air or sea where tournament schedules dictate.

Temporary flyaway setups are often used in Asia and the Caribbean for cricket matches, where some major productions feature as many as eight units (flypacks) of 30 cameras apiece.

Temporary flyaway setups are often used in Asia and the Caribbean for cricket matches, where some major productions feature as many as eight units (flypacks) of 30 cameras apiece.

“It's a massive operation,” he said. “but we haven't yet arrived at a situation where trucks are operating in India and the rest of the sub-continent. It wouldn't surprise me if that changes soon and for that to be the norm over the next 4 or 5 years. But what we have seen over the last few years is the start of what I would call ‘real-time remote production.’ That’s starting to happen now in cricket production. It’s reasonably well established as a practice in Australia and the UK., and has also been used extensively in recent years to cover cricket in the Caribbean. It is also a workflow that is being increasingly adopted in the Sub-Continent too.”

He also said there have been occasions when they’ve had to go to remote.

“We did the Caribbean Premier League a year ago where we had our production hub in London,” he said. “The production gallery and replay and graphics operators were located there, while cameras, some crew and announcer talent were on site. There was also an audio sub mix that was done on site, and then fed back to London for incorporation into the main telecast.”

So Many Projects, So Little Time

At the end of the day Huw said that the most challenging part of his job is the ever-increasing number of events that need to be produced each year.

“I finish one and am on to the next, sometimes within days of each other,” he said. “You're just flowing from one event into the next one with very little time to prep, so that's a constant challenge for us. My role tends to change a bit with each new client, because there are a lot of subtle differences in how the production is set up. So I need to understand what they want and deliver that according to the available budget.

“I tend to delegate and over time you learn people's strengths and weaknesses and how things work,” he said. “Everything is a process of familiarity. But as a general statement, I’m the orchestrator of the production and make sure it all goes smoothly.”

Distribution Model

Depending on the client requirements, Sunset + Vine can work with a number of service providers to distribute the fully produced world feed to rights holders. Typically the feed is made available for global rights holders off an Asia wide visible satellite such as Asia Sat 5 or at an international gateway such as BT Tower in London. One such recipient is Willow TV, based in California. Willow acquires the signal from one of those two places and runs it through its MCR in Chennai, India.

Live matches are streamed via OTT service provider Willow TV, which acquires the signal from one of two places and runs it through its MCR in Chennai, India before it goes to public viewers.

Live matches are streamed via OTT service provider Willow TV, which acquires the signal from one of two places and runs it through its MCR in Chennai, India before it goes to public viewers.

From there the Willow feed travels via a Tata fiber line to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles a company called Lumen picks up the signal and delivers it (via its cloud service) to all of Willow’s network of cable/satellite/vMVPD (virtual Multichannel Video Programming Distributor) affiliates. The cable/satellite/vMVPD companies handle the final mile to the end TV viewer.

To ensure smooth steaming, the content is compressed using H.264 Main Profile level 4, Scheme 4:2:0 CBR at a bit rate of 10.9 Mbps. Audio is delivered as AC3 at 192 kbps and the video delivery bit rate is steady at 8.5 Mbps. Willow's engineering team is based in India.

What about Latency? Todd Myers, COO at Willow TV, said that like with all live sporting events, the closer viewers get to see it in real time as folks do in the stadium the better. Minimizing latency takes some adjusting (sometimes in real time) as there are multiple long-distance signal transports and systems to run through before it gets to viewers’ homes.

His most challenging part is making sure the signal gets to where it is supposed to at the right time.

“This is a rarity, but it occasionally happens with all sports—when the feed goes down at the venue and it makes customers at home miss a piece of the match,” Myers said. “Customers oftentimes don't understand that Willow doesn't solely control delivery from the venue to their living room. We rely on multiple entities along the way to bring them the live cricket matches they enjoy. Missing a part of any match is frustrating and the natural reaction is to blame the TV network, when that TV network might not actually be at fault.”

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