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Court to Cloud: Remote Live Tennis Streaming with LiveSports LLC

Because LiveSports LLC often books and streams multiple tournaments in far-flung locations on the same long and busy shooting days, doing multicamera shoots on multiple courts at each event, they've found that the most practical way to be in more than one place at a time is not to be there at all.

Jef Kethley, president of LiveSports, LLC and chief problem solver at PIZAZZ, and his crews have been covering professional tennis tournaments for decades. But over the last several years of their work with the ATP Challenger Tour, LiveSports’ courtside presence has diminished significantly. Emerging IP technologies like NDI have enabled them to move more and more production elements to the cloud. Because LiveSports often books and streams multiple tournaments in far-flung locations on the same long and busy shooting days, doing multicamera shoots on multiple courts at each event, Kethley has found that the most practical way to be in more than one place at a time is not to be there at all.

“We were doing 40-plus tournaments a year,” Kethley says, “and each tournament is 7 to 10 days. Many times, we were stacking up and doing two, three, or as many as six events across a weekend,” often over successive weeks. “That’s where cloud production and remote production really became not just a nice thing to have, but a necessity.”

Kethley found that his crew members were on the road so much that they’d sold their houses and were staying in hotels or crashing on couches during brief stints at home. “So one of the things we started looking at was, what can we do remotely to help us stay home a little bit more?”

Doing concurrent multicam shoots on multiple courts in multiple locations also started to demand copious amounts of hardware. “Instead of just building bigger and bigger trucks,” Kethley says, “we just virtualized it and started bringing that into the cloud. And then we were starting to switch things in the cloud, and we really had a great workflow worked out.”

The approach they devised differs from the traditional REMI workflow in a few key ways. “In the past, a REMI workflow has always been transporting audio/video to
a master control center and doing all the switching and everything there,” Kethley says. But with LiveSports’ multicam 4K workflow—required in its ATP contract—
transporting as many as eight channels of 4K video across the internet to a central location proved daunting. “So we started looking at other options. Remote-controlling on-site switchers” provided a simple way to get over that hurdle.

“The other part that is quite different about our workflow from the traditional REMI,” Kethley continues, “is we use IP-controllable robotic cameras that we can
control from anywhere in the country, or even the world. And it’s not just set it, forget it. We’re following the players, and it looks just like they’re being followed by regular camera operators sitting behind the camera, except there’s nobody on it. There’s somebody on a joystick or somebody on a pan-bar
control system taking care of all the control” (Figure 1, below).

Figure 1. Hands-free Panasonic AK-UB300 robotic cameras

An essential part of the LiveSports workflow—which is particularly relevant to the responsiveness of the robotic cameras, a critical issue in a fast-moving sport in which tracking players’ movements is paramount—is its reliance on NDI technology to access, control, and manage its devices and content. “We use Panasonic AK-UB300 box cameras, which are serial, controlled by Mark Roberts heads, which are natively IP,” says Kethley. “One little jump from the lens to the head and it’s all
IP from there. We bring everything back NDI. On-site, we have the NewTek TriCaster TC1 for mixing and NewTek 3Play for replay. Both of those units now are controlled from off-site. Our guys in the master control are able to run those just as if they were sitting on-site. Another tool that we’re leveraging because we’re
already in the NDI space is the Sienna NDI Processing Engine. And also the NDI Cloud, which allows us to bring the NDI feeds up to our cloud servers, and then we’re mixing in the cloud with the Sienna engine. And as far as our output, besides feeding the livestream.com website for ATP, we’re actually streaming to the gaming houses overseas, which are the real money behind it all that keeps us going” (Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. LiveSports’ remotely controlled on-site TriCaster-based mixing and production setup

But on the production end, Kethley maintains, “NDI is the glue that holds us together.” As of this writing in late July, professional tennis in the U.S. remains mostly on hold for various reasons—partly because of pandemic caseload conditions in states like Florida and partly because of the long-distance travel involved in bringing together players for tournaments. For Kethley, traveling overseas to cover tournaments has its own challenges, particularly the need to quarantine for 2 weeks after touching down.

Still, Kethley looks ahead to a smooth and safe return to operations when play resumes because LiveSports’ distributed workflow is tailor-made for distanced and remote production. Like other streaming professionals who have developed remote workflows, he sees production trending in that direction even after public health conditions improve and the need for social distancing diminishes.

“Before too long, producing events in the cloud is going to be just as familiar and just as easy” as more traditional on-premises workflows, Kethley says. “It’s close already. The first mile is still the hardest part without a doubt. But once everything is swinging a hundred percent into the cloud, what’s the point of bringing it down? I don’t need to bring it down to all this gear that I have here. Skip a step, make it simpler. That’s where I see a big part of the future coming, and that’s going to apply to all kinds of events—not just sports.”

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