Making the Media Podcast S3E04 guest, Brian Leonard.

Innovative ways of engaging with sports audiences may be driven in the future by smaller leagues and teams because they are more willing to take more risks to attract new viewers and followers.

In the fourth episode of season three of the Making the Media Podcast, host Craig Wilson is joined by Brian Leonard, Head of Engineering: Post and Workflows at the sports producer and rights holder IMG.

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Listen to Hear:

  • Creative ways to deliver new viewers to sports
  • The reality of deciding when to move to the cloud
  • The skills challenge facing sports producers

Our Guest This Episode

Brian Leonard, Head of Engineering: Post and Workflows, IMG

Brian has been working for IMG for more than twenty years in the engineering department, working across all facets of TV production (both live and post). 

Working his way up from a Junior Engineer to now heading a department that supports some massive federations with typically a focus towards their world distribution. Brian is based at IMG Studios technical hub in London, where he is trying to push boundaries in all AI/ML/Virtual and cloud production while holding some big manufacturers’ feet to the fire in all areas of what they are offering, while also asking tough questions on all things around sustainability.

He is excited about what the future holds in sports production and thinks we are approaching a new age in a cost effective sports production especially with a focus on the lower tiers.

If you're a lower tier, you necessarily can push the boundaries a little bit more.

Brian Leonard, Head of Engineering: Post and Workflows, IMG

Mentioned in This Episode

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, Craig Wilson here and welcome to the Making the Media Podcast, thank you so much for joining us.

The world of sport remains one of the biggest drivers for live television viewing, delivering lucrative audiences which advertisers crave. But that comes at a price as we have seen with the exponential rise in the cost of rights in recent years.

And these markets are not just in the countries where the sport is played—the NFL has taken the initiative to routinely stage regular season games in the United Kingdom in recent years, using the event and TV coverage to expand the game beyond its traditional home-grown audience. And you may be as likely to see someone wearing an English Premier League team's shirt in downtown Bangkok as you may in downtown Birmingham with the league’s appeal exploited globally.

But if you are an organization which is covering sport, how do you meet that demand to create the content as more platforms emerge and that demand is not just from the very top leagues, but from the teams themselves, and it is not just teams at the top level, but every team in every league or division. And of course, it’s not just football.

The appetite for sports-related content may seem insatiable, but can the industry keep up? Joining me to discuss all of that in this episode is Brian Leonard, who is head of engineering for post and workflows at IMG in the UK.

Brian has worked there in a variety of roles for more than twenty years and has seen the massive expansion in demand for sport grow through that time. So I began by asking him to explain a bit first about who IMG are and what they do.

Brian Leonard: It's probably easier to say what IMG don't do in the grand scheme of things and especially IMG's a bigger name in America and probably than it is in the UK because in America, IMG's heavily involved in all the universities and the academies and training and basically big in tennis, big in golf. So there's an element, that's one part of what we do.

IMG necessarily have got—it's main thing was agency work. That's how it sort of was founded. It was being the agent for people and then sort of a television [inaudible] TWI, but we're also rights owners, right and broadcasters. So, Endeavour, who's the person who owns IMG, owns the UFC as well, so we've dipped our toe in all that sort of sports ownership.

There's IMG models, IMG Arena, IMG Arena does streaming to bookmakers and sports books. Endeavour Streaming does the OTT side of the business, so like your designs, we got our own solution for that, and then media is the department I sort of worked for. And then there's two sides, there's production and then there's the studios. And this is where the production is obviously making the TV shows and the studios is the area I fall into which is making sure that we give the facilities to these people to necessarily create it in the easiest, most comfortable way possible.

CW: And the kind of facilities that are on offer, you mentioned there about streaming, about teams, leagues, federations, that the market itself has grown massively in in recent years. It's not just about…I'm old enough to remember, Brian perhaps you are as well, you know match of the day here in the UK on a Saturday night was maybe the only time to you had a chance to watch football highlights never mind actually watching live games. So that market has just expanded incredibly.

BL: Right, and part of what we do is where you've got the sky doing the BBC and Amazon's doing the UK we're distributing for the rest of the world. So, the Premier League is pretty much 50% of our business. So, and again even in my period of time, we've gone from having studios to necessarily...so it started off doing one game, then it was two, then it was all of them, then it was—it's just literally feels like it's just how do we keep on growing. So, every so often we go back to the Premier League and say “We think you could do all of these new things. Have you got any appetite for doing it?” Depending on where they see what they're trying to achieve depends on where we go next.

CW: And what difference do you think it's made to the way that content is kind of created and delivered that there are these other markets that people are now looking to get into? It's not just about the domestic market, it's very much about how they can brand themselves, I guess, across the world.

BL: Again, it's just looking to grow. I think everybody wants to grow, everybody needs to grow. So there's an element of once—and again, when you look at a local football club, you think to yourself, “Ok, how do we grow that football club into getting more eyeballs watching it, more people watching it”? And you basically use what is probably available to you. So if you have 10 international players, maybe if you create content for those 10 international players you'd hit those 10 international markets easier and you'd be creating more demand for your particular team, your particular club, and you'd potentially bring in the eyeballs there.

The Premier League is such a beast and it's a very good beast in the fact of they don't do things necessarily just for the fun of it. They do it for a dedicated reason. So that's one of the reasons why I think there's—that's why you just want to do more and more and more and more and more.

CW: But it's also not just about the teams at the top level is it? It's about every level. I mean I know we're talking about football here or soccer for an international audience, but it is not just that top tier that's looking to get into those kind of markets as well. Do you see that as well?

BL: 100%. So it's actually getting to a stage now where I actually think that the lower tier—and again you can take this across any sport—it's got more opportunity to do more things that are innovative purely because the bigger boys are very risk adverse because if they make a mistake, it's huge, it's noticed, it's publicized. And then you have to think very carefully of why we are doing this, for what benefit, and what's it going to bring the federation or the league or the broadcaster.

So, if you're a lower tier, you don't have those same constraints, so you necessarily can push the boundaries a little bit more. And if you make a mistake, then it's not the end of the world because you might have only seen a few people see it. But if you pick on something that brings eyeballs and everybody goes, “Wow, that was interesting. Wow.” All of a sudden other leagues, other federations are looking at you thinking “Why aren't we doing that?” And I always think that's the biggest compliment you can give to anybody when it comes to innovation. If all of a sudden you start doing something and then people start copying, then you did something right. Whether how you financially gained from that is a tougher argument but I see huge potential in the the tiers below any big premiums—and again it's whether the tier below sees it as a tier below and that's also part of the part of the problem.

But you get to a stage where, you know, if you look at Wrexham and we've got nothing to do with the Wrexham operation that I’m aware of—just look at the interest that that's generated just by having two American owners, you know, celebrities owning it. All of a sudden, you know, I was hearing on talksport the other day they were saying you know my wife was asking about you know a non-league goal scorer and that is just generating interest that was not there before but because Wrexham are not necessarily pushing the boundaries from that perspective, it's interesting. It's interesting to us all. You know I'm one of the people who watch that show.

CW: Is it also at the top level though? I think one of the previous episodes we we've done was with Darren Long who you know was a long time at Sky obviously and Darren spoke a lot about the kind of innovation and quality that sky been involved in. Obviously, BT Sport have brought you know new things to as well and other broadcasters.

So is part of it driven at a quality level at the very top end. But I guess part of it the other side is about volume and about delivering that kind of volume of content. I'm interested in and how you've seen that develop.

BL: I’ll give you an example. What I've noticed as well is the manufacturers of televisions want you to necessarily go to newest 4K TV's, newest 8K TV. Sport has struggled globally to necessarily go into the next tier of UHD, purely because I don't think the fan is seeing a huge benefit. But going to 4K UHD 8K means you have to triple, quadruple your costs in delivering that signal to them. And when you deliver the signal and they can't really see a huge difference, then why are you doing it? So, that's one of the things where again, sky and BT had their own agenda for necessarily pushing UHD, so there's an element.

And again, no one's going to deny it's better, but is it worth the additional cost is what a federation would necessarily have to take that into account. So that's one of the things. And on the delivery, I'm lucky enough to be IMG where I see us sometimes as a tanker. So we're not necessarily the most agile all of the time, but what we can deliver, it is a beast. So we can come along and deliver 14 times the amount that someone else, so I always describe as a tanker, but we've also got speed boats on the side that are delivering to digital and delivering to everybody else and a helicopter and occasionally to necessarily get content to somewhere else. And again, we're always looking in the sky seeing these two big jumbo jets or the AWS and the Azure thinking, well maybe we start delivering that way. So it's…when you've got a beast like that you can necessarily deliver massive amount of content. And does a fan want to see one polished clip. Or does he want to see 75 different renditions of that clip? And it's always, it's a tough, it's a tough one to work out who wants what, because you may want to see the story, but as a fan, I might want to see the specific action and it's trying to please everybody at the same time. And so it's one of those things that's tough.

CW: Do you think football is unique in the way that it has a sort of dominance in the media in this country in the UK but I guess if you look abroad—I've been lucky enough to be to India a few times, it's cricket that's the main sport there. We were talking just before we started recording about the American football the NFL being in London you know so in the US you know soccer is growing but basketball, ice hockey, NFL, they're still—baseball—dominant sport.

So from I guess when IMG. Perspective, are you trying to look at the other markets and say “Are there other things that we can do here that's perhaps not just limited to what you do in football?”

BL: I think it's fair to say that everybody's looking at everybody. So if I'm watching an NFL game and they do something I'm thinking “Ohh well we could do that and we could do it in a slightly different way to take benefit.” I think part of the problem and it's one of my struggles is that we've been doing football very, very well now and I think this is the same across all sports for 20, 30 plus years in television. So to come along with anything that hasn't already been tried is tough. And so, if you're then going to do it, what was the benefit?

So, you know, there are times when you could say, “Ok, let's have 8K cameras all around the time” But if it costs you 75 times the amount and no one really sees a benefit, what was the point? And so who are you trying to please and why are you trying to please them?

And you know, I think one of the things is always harsh to to a federation is when you see YouTubers out there and influencers doing amazingly well and they haven't got any content and you're thinking “How are they doing so well?” They're shooting it in their living room. They're shooting it with their, you know, wash baths and in the background. And why are they pulling in the numbers? They're pulling in the numbers because they're controversial. They're saying things that aren't going to be—no television broadcast is going to come out with half of the stuff they get away with because there's comeuppance, you'll be reported, you won't be allowed to do that. So what's what's allowed for the influence of this world is not necessarily allowed for the rest of us.

So we're always competing unfairly because if we're creating official content for a particular federation and it only brought in 10 viewers, but we could create—so you see then the unofficial content has got a million views, and you're like “Well what are we doing wrong? We've got the actual content” so on and so forth, but we can't compete. It's not a fair game, and I feel like federations are starting to realize that and there's an element of them actually putting content onto a YouTube as well, makes YouTube a better platform, which potentially hurts their own platform.

So you get into a stage where I wouldn't be surprised in time where more and more federations, more and more official sports really don't give a lot to the YouTube of this world because they see that the little dribbling of money, but they're sitting there thinking to themselves, “Well, YouTube taking a huge cut at that. If we control our own destiny, maybe then we'd get more money than we are on the current YouTube model.”

I think YouTube still has a place, the number of eyeballs it has, blah blah blah. So you use it in potentially in a different way, but the potential is I think there's a there's a chance where they could potentially change and bring sport in a different way to the YouTube and the influencers.

CW: I think this is something that's come up a lot is the likes of Twitter and YouTube are seen in some respects as necessary evils. You have to be there because you have to have a presence there. But from a financial perspective, and we talked a bit about this on news about, you know, the rise of TikTok and the rise of Instagram actually as news platforms, which might think a bit odd, but it's something that's happened now, but there's no money in that. And so what people are actually looking to do is to move that audience to their own platform, to their own website, to their own app. Is it the same in sport that that's really what the teams and federations are hoping to do?

BL: I believe so. You know, whether we like it or not, sport is news. So it's keeping up to up to date with what's going on. There's the live game but then everything else around it is news for me. That's what you're watching. So every problem that news faces is a similar problem we face. You know, when I've listened to the podcasts, I agree with practically everything that's been said. It's everybody sitting there going, “We have to do this and we make no money from it” and then we're going, “Well, why do we have to do it?” And I think the tide might slowly be changing. But it is a necessary evil.

And again, I'm thinking back to what other people have said in your podcast and in the fact of that's where people are. So if you don't go, it's a risk to necessarily say, “Well that content won't be available anymore. You now have to come to this location” because people are potentially lazy and they'll just stay wherever they're happy. And you know it's a tough one, it’s a tough one.

CW: You mentioned earlier on this sort of Amazons and Googles of the world and obviously cloud you know delivery and cloud production is something a lot of people are talking about. What are you looking at from that kind of perspective Brian because I guess one of the things you have to assess from that is you know is it going to make things better, is it economically going to work for me? Where are you on that sort of journey of looking at the cloud?

BL: I think we want to keep our options open and I think everybody does, and I think one of the reasons why potentially we won't move fast into that world is that there's CapEx cycles we have to worry about. If we've got an entire facility sitting here ticking over available to do a job, why would we necessarily go to the cloud and there's an element—that's a big factor for us. There's also that element of. Why did you do it if it’s not going to be cheaper and it's not going to necessarily bring you anything better. In fact, it's going to be more expensive and it's going to be more complicated to do, but we're still trying to push it.

I think the only thing it massively wins on is sustainability. So, that is a big thing and especially in the media industry. But there's an element of you probably could do four or five other things to counteract that and you'd still probably be in a better, better place. So sustainability is the only thing for me where it is winning, but apart from that...and that's why it's tough—it's frustrating when you still hear them saying “Well I don't know if we can trust it” You 100% can trust it. There's no doubt in my mind you know if big banks are using this technology it can be trusted you know no more than any other computer can be trusted you know so…it's a tough one because I'm struggling to see a huge benefit because we've been doing remote broadcasts for 22 years as long as I've been there—it's just now a buzzword and necessarily has got a lot of clout and again I think there's potential.

So giving you an example, if we can bring in all the core feeds for the main broadcast maybe we’ll necessarily give the content to broadcasters around the world to do a special section on the foreign player that that they support. So if you necessarily are doing a golfing event and basically there are four Japanese players, you can give all the content, put it into the cloud and then they can cut their own show as a special red button channel in their facility. So it's about offering capability, offering solutions. I'm not seeing anything…you know, if there's ever going to do a big Champions League in the cloud, probably not. But again who knows in time that might that might turn around but at this moment in time it's one of those that I don't think…It's definitely coming, I'm just not sure whether the big boys or our own board as much as they potentially will be in the long run.

CW: Yeah, I think there's a lot of assessment that's still going on at the moment. And one of the things I think people are still struggling to get their heads around is actual total cost of ownership because ultimately that's, that's the one thing that if you could look at it and go, “OK, my total cost of ownership is this today and this is what it would be in the cloud” and we've spoken to some people who it's quite difficult to actually do that kind of assessment. You know, it's quite difficult to work out what these things are in terms of the actual real cost I guess of what you do today and compile this into what may seem an inflated cost of what you do in the cloud.

BL: It does give you more options. So you know one of the other benefits of the cloud is if all of our content was in the cloud then potentially we could let AI access our content a lot easier. So there are there are benefits on that front and again who knows the AI might come in and bring in a new technology that allows us to distribute 100 times the amount we're distributing. So there's an element of no one's—definitely no one saying it's not going to win. It's definitely going to win, you just can’t compete with those with those boys in the long run from support perspective, you know, because when I've looked at the support argument is, let's say we've got an amazing support guy who's really expensive, really good, amazing at what he does. That's only one individual. The cloud potentially could have 50 of those people offering to do me 24/7, 365 days at a fraction of the cost of my one individual.

So they're in a strong position to necessarily, you know, take over. But it's going to take time.

CW: You mentioned something there Brian, I think it's quite interesting to talk about which is about skills and availability of people. You know one element that we've talked a little bit about in the podcast is there's a skills crunch I think a lot of people see within the industry kind of coming possibly, some of it the pandemic has kind of preempted you know some of the stuff that's happened. So I'm interested in what your own assessment is of just the availability of people to do stuff.

We've talked a bit about the explosion and the amount of content that's being created. Do you see that as something as a challenge? 100% we're struggling to find good stuff. And so there's an element of…I don't know because again it's not only a problem for us, it's a problem for the entire industry. So I think what it potentially might do for the industry is stunt growth. So there's an element of…if I can't find the people and we can't find the people, then we can't offer what technology they might be able to do because we haven't got the people to support it. And I don't think that's an IMG problem. I think that's a global problem. So you know, I think the geniuses I've worked with in the past when television was the most exciting thing in the world you had real intelligent people getting into television because it was exciting. It was the place to be. I'm not sure television is perceived as the bad place to be because one, you can do it in your own home, so it can't be that complex. Two, you necessarily got to a stage where networking and development and is probably seen as more exciting.

And it's a weird one because I don't…I don't really know how looking at computer screen tapping away at numbers is more exciting than necessarily television, but you do have that problem. And I don't know whether the computer market will get flooded and then we'll necessarily get the scraps of that industry. I'm not 100% sure if that's going to work out. But what worries me is that we might be able to technically do things, but we won't be able to do it because the lack of skills supporting.

CW: Yeah, and I think it's also competition from other industries which are perhaps seen as sexier, like gaming, for example.

So, one thing I wanted to ask about is where do you think the next innovations coming from? You know you talked earlier on about we've been doing live television, we're doing live football for a long time and live sport for a long time now, and there has been lots of innovation but what do you think could be the next thing?

BL: I do think that the Tier 2's of this world can step up their game, and again, I always look at the NFL as a founder of they will take the good and the bad and they'll necessarily sweat therein. WWE is another one I necessarily I know with your support or not. But there's an element to say that they embrace everything. And so necessarily, you know, giving you an example, there was an element of I was talking Spurs at their grounds necessarily had a mural on the ground of Ledley King. So an old player, you know, I necessarily said to the NFL potentially we could do a mural for every club in the EFL. Therefore that's 72 murals. We're doing an art show so we can expand into different areas that aren't necessarily sport and necessarily try and piggyback off of those sort of technologies potentially to draw people back to the sport if all of a sudden they see Ledley King they goes “He’s a nice bloke—ohh what teams he sport?” You know and you get people more subtly.

So the innovation that lower tiers have is potentially where it could be game changing because I reckon that if they start doing things that the bigger boys are too scared to do and it all works well and it all can be done well then they can turn around and the bigger boys will go well. “You've proved it on the lower tier, so let's us do it and we'll necessarily do it.” So we can still expand that way. But the federations are still risk averse. Broadcasters are still risk averse. So let's try it, let's push the innovation through.

One of the things we're not necessarily talking about is potentially taking a football match, doing the data associated with that football match and then putting that football match into Minecraft so kids could watch and basically see all the players running around the pitch pretty much live. And again, that might open up the Minecraft rights to broadcasters and no one's ever bought the Minecraft rights before so that's how other things can grow. But there there's still plenty of capability for innovation but it's not anything in my mind that is “Wow!”

You know I think in the last couple of times I've been to IBC, I haven't been…no one's knocking me off my chair going “Jesus I didn't expect that” And I think that also when you look at the 3Ds, I think the big manufacturers have been hurt because they're thinking I will bring this 3D will make a world of difference, and it didn't really. And so if I was them I'd be like “Right let's make sure this is something that's got some, got some legs.”

CW: I mean ultimately it is all about the product. It's all about the game. But I mean you talked all about studios. I'm interested in how you think studios have developed and the kind of looks that are created now to go and create content. It's not just about a guy sitting in a cupboard that's delivering the game. It is much more about that whole experience. So what are your thoughts on sort of studio development studio workflows?

BL: Very similar. You know, we've been doing studio for a long, long time. I think there's an element of I find that the green screen capability is getting better and better and better. So people can't tell you're in a green screen as often as easily. And then that potentially gives us as a facility the capability of switching it to one studio for this client and switching it to one studio for another client. Which might not sound very exciting, but from our perspective it allows us to sweat an asset even more and so. So that is a big factor to play because if you necessarily had to fix it and you have to pull it all out and put it all in, that takes 2 days. That's two days it's out for. So then you get to a stage where you just not using the studio as efficiently. So if we can necessarily turn that around, but again, what's a studio? You know, you get into a stage where basically I want to film commentators while they're speaking over the game because that's another camera angle, that's another content. So these commentators could be sitting in their own room just like what we are, so there's an element of “Are we in a studio now?” That we necessarily have to have our own green screen sent around to everybody so we can necessarily control what's on the background?

So the studio technology is there and again in our world we've recently made a big push for IP, so 2110 is necessarily used in our facility. So that's coming with advantages and disadvantages. It allows you to scale massively, but you're still on sort of new technology. So it's very, it just feels just like this—SDI did for me when on your first SDI matrix you had quite a decent amount of problems, it was a little bit flaky and then over time it become more stable and I'm 99% sure that's gonna happen with our IP matrix.

But again, let's see what that brings. I think it just brings scale cost effective. So hopefully that helps answer.

CW: As you head into the winter period where obviously you know it's a very big focus of football here in the UK, we've got the World Cup that's coming up in in the next little while which I don't know if IMG are directly involved in that, but what are you expecting to see from the from the World Cup because that's normally a place where people do perhaps try some different things?

BL: Well I don’t…and again, this is the ridiculous thing about IMG—I'm sure we are involved, I'm just not sure where. So from an IMG studios perspective we're not that heavily involved. I know we're gonna be doing stuff hopefully for the Rugby World Cup next year, in the Women's World Cup next year, but for the for the actual football, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of our staff went out there and a lot of the Premier League staff potentially that skill set necessarily goes out to a tournament when the Premier League not running. So it's quite a nice little, you know—so there'll be people out there but they're probably not representing us.

And again, I'm not expecting any ground-breaking technology. I'm sure they would necessarily try and push some stuff. I think the VR element is necessarily going to have from, and again, this is just me being a football fan, is gonna have a new change to it and the fact of answers will be given for offside a hell of a lot quicker than they have been in the past. So I'm expecting the technology actually on the pitch to be probably the most exciting thing. I'm not expecting the technology broadcasting-wise to be any different than the last tournament to be honest.

CW: And we'll see how England get on and Wales get on in this one. Of course Scotland not being…

BL: I was going to say, I'm sure you'll be wishing us your best of course.

CW: So Brian, great to talk to you, lots of things we've covered, I know you listen to the podcast, so you know the last question that is going to come. So what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

BL: I think it's the...I want to do more, but I'm held back by politics. And the politics is the thing that stops us from doing more. And so politics is the thing that keeps me up at night. So again, I don't think we'd be any different to any other broadcast or any other manufacturer, but it's that obstruction that really does prevent us from pushing boundaries and doing more.

CW: Thanks to Brian for joining us on the podcast. What do you think about what we discussed? Don’t forget you can get in touch on social through any of the Avid channels, or with me, I am @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram, or email [email protected].

If you want to find out more about sport, then check out the show notes with links to another podcast episode with Trevor Pilling from Olympic Broadcasting Services as he discusses the massive operation to cover the Summer and Winter Games.

And if you want to know how editorial teams collaborate on all this content, then check out the links to the latest information on Avid NEXIS shared storage and discover the benefits it can bring to your editorial teams.

Please share the podcast, we are always on the hunt for new listeners and subscribers, just choose your preferred podcast platform and subscribe to get notified when the next episode is out.

Thanks again to our producer Matt Diggs, thanks to Brian for taking part, but most of all, thanks to you for listening. My name is Craig Wilson, join us next time for the latest from the people making the media.