January’s Super Cup wasn’t just a thrilling football match between two stalwart teams, it marked the debut of a number of exciting firsts on the UAE football scene, from buggy cams and live drone footage to vertical production for mobile phone users. The UAE Pro League team speaks to BroadcastPro ME in an exclusive interview about how these new technologies have brough a fresh perspective to the UAE Pro League’s Super Cup telecast.
Since its inception, the UAE Pro League has striven to be at the forefront of broadcast and technology developments in the football industry. With the 2017- 2020 strategic plan placing special emphasis on the adoption of technology, the entity believes the introduction of new technology is crucial to bringing distinctiveness and freshness to local football coverage.
This has always been evident in the production of the UAE Super Cup, a pivotal event for the country’s broadcast community. As the entity in charge of UAE football, the UAE Pro League has often used every opportunity to showcase its ideas and implement the latest technology in football coverage. January’s Super Cup was no exception as the Pro League went all out to produce a match that established a series of firsts for the MENA region.
For one, Amy Gillingham joined the team as the first female football commentator. Secondly, this event saw the use of buggy cams for the first time in MENA, according to the team. The telecast was also the Pro League’s first full vertical production, with its entire crew working on special mobile coverage enhanced with live drone footage combined with augmented reality (AR) – another first for the region. The Pro League had more than 40 cameras for the host broadcaster and another 40 cameras for unilateral production, with more than 400 people working for three days to produce the best match of the season.
Overseeing this entire production was Waleed Al Hosani, UAE Pro League CEO, with Malek Dougan, Marketing & Commercial Affairs Director, and Ammar Hina, former Broadcast & TV Production Director. This project was Hina’s last before setting out to undertake other sports projects across the region.
“It has always been our objective to be seen as a pioneering sports entity in this region, so over the years we have continuously innovated by working with key vendors and solution providers to keep enhancing the quality of our productions,” explains Al Hosani.
“For this project, we had the opportunity to play with a number of different technologies and it really raised the value of our production. As a company that now sells its rights to both local and international broadcasters, we have ensured our production standards are nothing short of the best on an international scale.”
Buggy cams roll into MENA football
While buggy cams have been a vital part of cricket broadcast for a long time, their use on the football pitch, especially in Asia and MENA, have been considerably limited due to the sport’s short play and on-air times. It’s also more challenging to manoeuvre buggy cams in the space around a football field, with regulators expressing safety concerns for players. On the upside, they offer a dynamic view of the action on the field, allowing live shots and making each frame very eye-catching. The UAE Pro League decided to break the barriers and use the Super Cup to pave the way for buggy cams on the Middle East football scene.
“For us, the idea was not just the technology itself, but how to utilise it in the best way possible” – Ammar Hina, former Broadcast & TV Production Director
The UAE Pro League’s buggy cams are provided by Quidich Innovation Labs, with its technical team helping the Pro League get fantastic coverage of the Super Cup. The five-axis-stabilised camera is ideal for low-angle captures and the dual-operator set-up allows extreme precision, enabling the buggy cam to deliver both slow shots for TV and fast moves racing alongside the athletes.
“For us, the idea was not just the technology itself, but how to utilise it in the best way possible. The UAE Pro League crew was so excited about the buggy cams that there were more than 20 members praying that the match would end in draw at the time,” Hina lets on. A draw would lead to a penalty shootout, meaning the cameras would be able to come out in full force, rolling into the empty parts of the pitch to get the shots the crew was dreaming of. “When Al Jazira club scored the draw, celebrations broke out inside the OB truck!”
With 50% of fans watching matches and football clips on mobile devices, the UAE Pro League wants to capitalise on the vertical production trend. Hina predicts that vertical production may even become the future of football telecast as production choices are driven by the change in media consumption and fan preferences. He calls this the social media change.
It’s within this context that a special mobile device production with vertical aspect only for mobile phone viewers became the crowning jewel of this year’s broadcast and another exciting MEA first for the Super Cup.
Typically, mobile phone users use the vertical aspect to watch clips, zooming in or minimising the 16:9 aspect. Mobile phones use a 9:16 aspect, which is harder to shoot in due to the narrower field of view. Compared to the traditional 16:9, it makes tracking of fast-moving players and the ball more challenging, especially since the director and the cameramen only have a third of the screen to work with instead of the traditional landscape screen.
To counter this, the UAE Pro League employed extra cameras and doubled its production kit and bulk of convertors to ensure the mobile screen aspects were right. Additionally, special tripods were used to allow fans to engage with a full 4K UHD vertical video without pixel degradation.
“As a company that now sells its rights to both local and international broadcasters, we have ensured our production standards are nothing short of the best on an international scale” – Waleed Al Hosani, UAE Pro League CEO
The Pro League team drew inspiration from Deutsche Fußball Liga Digital Sports and Sportcast (DFL). In a 2019 match between VfL Wolfsburg and SV Werder Bremen in Germany, the DFL produced a 9:16 format in addition to the broadcast format, providing a totally new experience to viewers. It added five new cameras in order to capture images in that ratio, for a total of 24 cameras throughout the stadium, mounted on special tripods that could rotate them to 90 degrees. In the control room, the monitors were also rotated to have the transmission in this spatial format. These signals were only added to the broadcast specifically intended for mobile devices.
Hitching on the VR trend
With all the new technology whizzing onto the football pitch, it may seem that the traditional broadcast of premium matches will be affected. Hina quickly refutes this.
“Sitting around a big screen with ardent fans, good friends and family will remain the best way to watch and enjoy football,” he opines. “The change is coming, but mobile devices being used as screens to watch sports will be limited. While many mobile-device producers keep enhancing the size of the screens, they still remain the second-best screen option for now. I doubt they will replace the big screen, but this is something we will need to conduct more research and fans surveys on.”
But where mobile plays may not be able to convince TV viewers to convert, virtual reality (VR) may become the X factor. VR casting allows fans to watch the action from amazing new viewing positions, recreating the stadium experience in the highest visual quality available. VR set-ups use an ultra-HD camera to capture tangible sideline views, a wide-view camera to see the entire field and more perspectives from cameras on each goalpost. Interactive elements such as access to replays and stats are already making VR a favourite with die-hard fans. The UAE Pro League is already prepared for this change, as the first to use VR telecasting for a match – in 2018 for the UAE Pro League Cup final at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain.
More bang for the buck
Despite the introduction of the latest technology for production and broadcast, the UAE Pro League managed to maintain its regular budget. Even the cost of technical integration of old and new systems was kept down to a minimum, says Hina. In some instances, it spent less than budgeted. A future challenge could be commercialising the new systems with help from fan feedback and showcasing this to potential stakeholders, he envisages.
The most challenging part of implementing any technological innovation, however, is not integration or budgets. It is garnering the support of stakeholders, remarks Malek Dougan, UAE Pro League Marketing & Commercial Affairs Director.
“A sound technical team can make miracles happen. The Super Cup was less about budget and more about showcasing the expertise of the team members with the advanced technology adopted. It is the hours of work put in by the team which has been the biggest investment by the company,” he says. There is no doubt the goalpost is continually shifting when it comes to the use of technology in sports broadcast. But the UAE Pro League has its sights firmly fixed on wherever the ball rolls, and this year’s Super Cup is only a glimpse of the future of tech in UAE football.
VR training vs real-life training for footballers
Research shows that VR training can be just as effective as real-life training for footballers, reducing the after-effects of sub-concussive events such as heading the ball (over 6,000 headers are made every season in the course of training), which could be a bigger contributing factor to dementia than concussions themselves.
Fancy being a Pro League player?
Last month, in collaboration with EA SPORTS, the UAE Pro League launched the second edition of the e-UAEPL competition for 2021-2022. The winner will represent the UAE Pro League at the EA SPORTS FIFA 22 Global Playoffs. The launch signifies the league’s aspiration to offer gaming enthusiasts an opportunity to participate in regional and global competitions. The event will stream on the official UAE Pro League Twitch and YouTube channels, AD gaming platform, Zawaya Gaming and Divine, as well as local broadcasts.