Feature: From Wimbledon to 30,000 feet via inflight connectivity

Action from Wimbledon 2016 finds its way to 11 airlines via Panasonic Avionics.
Action from Wimbledon 2016 finds its way to 11 airlines via Panasonic Avionics.

Get Connected’s Steve Nichols was recently invited to see how IMG and Panasonic Avionics work together to bring live sports to passengers on flights worldwide via inflight connectivity. This is what he found.

Panasonic Avionics partners with IMG to bring live worldwide sports to aircraft via satellite using its eXTV inflight connectivity service.

Panasonic has an exclusive aviation agreement with IMG for the latter’s live Sport24 channel, which was launched in 2012.

IMG describes itself as “a global leader in sports, events, media and fashion, operating in more than 30 countries”.

And it isn’t an idle boast, with IMG’s portfolio reading like a “who’s who” of the sports and entertainment world.

IMG’s Sport 24 is the world’s only live 24/7 sports channel for the airline and cruise line industry and broadcasts a multitude of events including Barclays Premier League, Bundesliga, UEFA Champions League, Formula 1™, NBA, NFL, Ryder Cup, golf majors and tennis grand slams. To give you some idea of its scope it has access to around 500 live sports feeds from around the world and provided more than 300 hours of coverage from the last Olympics.

The company says it it responsible for more than 21,000 hours of television and more than 30,000 hours of radio annually.

Some of the 500 or so sports feeds available to IMG at its west London offices.
Some of the 500 or so sports feeds available to IMG at its west London offices.

Sport 24 is currently available via Panasonic Avionics eXTV inflight connectivity on 11 airlines, including Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Gulf Air and Turkish.

David Bruner, Vice President, Global Communications Services at Panasonic Avionics, said: “Sport never stops and neither do Panasonic and IMG. The interest worldwide is massive and it was a logical step for us to introduce live sports TV to aircraft.”

Panasonic inflight connectivity

Statistics from Panasonic Avionics show around 1.4m passengers were able to watch the last FIFA World Cup via eXTV, with 40,000 glued to the final between Argentina and Germany alone.

According to its figures, around three quarters of the passengers on one Lufthansa aircraft watched their national team take home the World Cup trophy after winning 1-0.

And sports are universal too. IMG signed a multi-year agreement with the US National Basketball Association (NBA) to broadcast live NBA games and up to 90 percent of passengers on flights leaving the US watched the New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Superbowl.

Argentina's Juan Martín del Potro on the centre court at Wimbledon. Seconds later the action was viewable on aircraft around the world via inflight connectivity.
Argentina’s Juan Martín del Potro on the centre court at Wimbledon. Seconds later the action was viewable on aircraft around the world via inflight connectivity.

But how does IMG decide what to broadcast? Tim Wood, IMG’s Vice President, Business Development, said its programming “tends to follow the sun”.

“We might start the day with the National Rugby League from Australia in the morning, before moving to tennis from Wimbledon from noon, and then baseball or football from the US in the evening,” said Wood, a self-confessed sports geek.

“Our programming follows a passenger’s wants and needs – on the whole, passengers want to be entertained during daylight and sleep at night,” he said.

Wood said scheduling can become a nightmare and takes place many weeks in advance.

“When we have a number of events taking place at once we have to think about what is most popular,” Wood said. “This is due to happen on 10 July – ‘Super Sunday’ – with the final of Euro 2016, the British Grand Prix from Silverstone and the Wimbledon final all taking place at once.”

To cope with demand IMG and Panasonic partnered on a second live sports channel for the inflight connectivity market in June to complement Sport 24.

 Sport 24 Extra

Sport 24 Extra provides passengers with a choice of live coverage during busy periods in the sporting calendar and also allows the company to re-rerun popular events.

Left to right: IMG's Richard Wise, marine satellite expert Alan Gottlieb, Get Connected's Steve Nichols and Panasonic Avionics' Dave Bruner, in the Tennis Channel studio at Wimbledon.
Left to right: IMG’s Richard Wise, marine satellite expert Alan Gottlieb, Get Connected’s Steve Nichols and Panasonic Avionics’ Dave Bruner, in the Tennis Channel studio at Wimbledon.

In early July, “Get Connected’s” Steve Nichols visited IMG’s production offices in west London and its live facilities at Wimbledon to see how much work goes on behind the scenes to make it all happen.

You can’t help but be struck by the enormous size of the whole enterprise. Its west London office in Stockley Park houses more than 500 staff and 72 edit suites – it is huge.

While visiting, two new studios were being prepared for the upcoming premier league football (soccer) season.

“It sounds like a cliche, but sport is in our DNA, “ said Wood. “We have years of experience in doing this and we ‘get it’. We know the value of sports globally, and although sometimes we play it down, what we achieve is a technical feat.

“At any one time we could be covering up to 10 Premier League soccer games in parallel.”

And what of the future? “We want to do more live broadcasts and more special programming from niche events,” said Wood.

Over at Wimbledon the IMG production facilities were no less impressive. It covers every one of the 20 courts and even has automatic action-tracking Hawk-Eye cameras to cover the lesser games. This is the same technology used to make instant decisions as to whether a ball is in or out.

“The Hawk-Eye cameras work very well and can follow the players without intervention,” Wood said. “A cameraman can use a joystick to override the camera’s viewpoint, but on the whole they don’t need to.”

Wimbledon

IMG has its own production facilities at Wimbledon.
IMG has its own production facilities at Wimbledon.

Behind the scenes at Wimbledon is a media city with more cables than you can shake a stick at and enough technology to equip a small state.

Some of the statistics are mind blowing. Apparently every game played in the Wimbledon championship since 2007 has been recorded and is available on IMG’s servers, which reside behind a firmly locked door – the footage has enormous value.

But how does all this tennis coverage end up on an aircraft? The raw footage, along with commentary, interviews and other add-ons, makes its way via fibre optic to the editing and production suites at Wimbledon. The finished Sport24 and Sport24 Extra feeds then go via 2.5Tbps fibre-optic links to Arqiva in London where it is distributed at light speed to 17 satellite teleports worldwide.

From these the signals are uploaded via satellite links to 30 different geostationary Ku-band satellites sitting around 22,300 miles above the equator.

Finally, the signals reach the aircraft’s inflight connectivity system via satellite before being distributed to the passenger’s seat-back eXTV system, even though they may be at 30,000 feet and moving at more than 500mph.

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