How 5G Could Change the Sports Broadcasting and Viewing Experience

To begin with, boosting video transmission speeds by 10 to 100 times

With the introduction of 5G, the NBA will soon be able to bring the game to life with 360 video. The NBA wants to use the next generation of the internet to reach the next generation of fans. Philip Pacheco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Every year, Fox Sports temporarily installs 39 miles of fiber optic cable throughout the golf course hosting the U.S. Open Championship. The expensive rigging is the only way for the network to transmit live, high-definition video from far-flung holes to its central production trucks in a timely enough manner.

Or it was, until last year, when Fox Sports teamed with AT&T, Intel and Ericsson to test replacement of terrestrial lines with 5G wireless service, the nascent next generation of cell service that’s expected to boost speeds by 10 to 100 times what’s currently available.

The results, according to a recent white paper on the project, showed the promise of a nimbler filming and production process with wireless cameras that could allow for more behind-the-scenes footage, 360-degree capture and other new windows into the action. It would also cut costs by at least 34 percent with much more potential savings as cell coverage expands and improves.

The trial is one of the less flashy but still substantial ways that sports leagues, broadcasters and carriers expect 5G to transform the business of capturing and disseminating live sports media. Between mixed-reality streaming, instant in-stadium supplemental content and production efficiencies that will make them possible at scale, the technology is expected to bring a new level of immersion to the viewing experience.

“What we did at the U.S. Open was a very simple validation of what we think 5G will be able to do for our business one day,” said Michael Davies, svp, field and technical operations, Fox Sports. “In time, 5G—in one of its many manifestations—will be a fundamental part of how we contribute programming, but quite possibly, how we consume it also.”

While an expansive 5G network likely won’t be widely available to consumers this year, leagues and broadcasters have already started experimenting with using the virtual reality streaming capabilities it enables to make far-removed fans feel like they’re in the midst of the action.

Last November, for instance, the Sacramento Kings partnered with Verizon to test what they claim was the first-ever live 360-degree VR stream of a game over 5G by a professional U.S. sports franchise. The organization used the demo to give local youth a simulation of court-side seats.

The NBA sees capabilities like those as crucial to building an increasingly global fan base, where fans may never have the opportunity to actually attend a game. The league is also looking into using the geographical targeting that high-speed mobile streaming provides to include custom color commentary from local influencers.

“NBA fans are young and tech-savvy and increasingly consuming content on mobile,” said the NBA’s president of global content and media distribution, Bill Koenig. “As we continue to explore emerging technologies like augmented and virtual reality, 5G will play an important role in delivering immersive experiences more effectively and efficiently.”

The NFL may start testing 5G-enabled features this year through some of its individual team apps, according to chief information officer Michelle McKenna-Doyle. The process will start with an extensive fan survey to gauge popular interest in a range of hypothetical mobile functions, like VR and instant mobile replays.

“We’re kind of in that phase where there aren’t 5G devices on the market yet, and all of the carriers are working furiously to equip all cities, stadiums, etcetera, with 5G, so we’re right there at the intersection of that,” McKenna-Doyle said. “There’s lots of good ideas out there and it’s just about getting them down, getting them prioritized and then the not-so-fun part of making sure all the infrastructure’s in place.”

New opportunities for 5G integration also extend to the on-site event experience. AT&T recently announced that it plans to install 5G network capabilities in the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium. The carrier sees the new connection speeds eventually making way for features like HD 360-degree instant replays or VR views of locker room celebrations.

“5G is expected to alter the in-stadium experience in dramatic, exciting ways by blurring the physical and digital experience in ways that are simply not possible on today’s networks,” said Igal Elbaz, AT&T’s svp, wireless technology.

AT&T also recently teamed with Nokia and an augmented-reality media company called Jaunt to offer fans at an Atlanta Falcons game the chance to perform touchdown dances that are then re-created in hologram form through a 5G connection.

“Immersive media experiences are going to be one of the things that are unique on 5G,” said Jaunt CEO Mitzi Reaugh. “We’re really focused on AR because we think there’s a lot of use cases. … It’s very user-friendly and something that is accessible to most people.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 4, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@patrickkulp Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.