In an ever-evolving digital landscape, how we watch sport is continually changing. Whilst nothing can beat the in-stadium experience when watching your team live, the EFL is at the forefront of innovation when providing new and improved ways for football supporters to watch live football from the comfort of their own home.
Whilst the introduction of online streaming is not new in the world of sport, it is still an innovative - and relatively new - development for football.
Following the introduction of iFollow in 2017, the EFL has continued to provide football fans with a new avenue to follow their team at home and abroad. The technology is not only enhancing the way fans can follow their team, but also providing a significant revenue stream for those EFL Clubs signed up to the EFL Digital offering.
Domestically, EFL Clubs are able to live stream select league matches in the UK and Ireland via their respective iFollow (or equivalent) service, providing the fixture is not broadcast live on Sky Sports and takes place outside the broadcasting blackout hours of 14.45-17.15 on Saturday afternoons. With match passes available on a match-by-match basis, midweek fixtures are proving increasingly popular with the domestic audience for those unable to make the game.
Internationally, iFollow continues to allow football fans that live abroad and aren’t able to watch their team regularly the opportunity to engage with their club again, with live fixtures available to watch on a weekly basis around the world.
Last season, over 2.3 million hours of football were watched on iFollow across the world, with more than 717,000 live streams being broadcast, resulting in more than £7million generated for EFL Clubs involved.
With the appetite for EFL action growing and demand for the online product increasing, the EFL formed a new partnership with global sports company IMG ahead of the 2019/20 season, one of the largest independent producers and distributors of sports media. Together, both parties set out to make a number of substantial improvements to the product for the viewers at home.
Abi Rodwell recently visited IMG Studios at Stockley Park – one of the biggest hubs of its kind in world sport - to take a closer look at the matchday operation and the opportunities unlocked by the exciting new production centre.
IMG’s Senior Producer for the EFL, Pete Walker, discusses the new improvements to iFollow, what work needed to be carried out ahead of the new season and how the EFL’s partnership with IMG has helped implement the changes.
“With the contract for IMG to take this on being signed off in June 2019, we had to move quickly to be ready for the start of the season,” Walker recalls.
“The most challenging aspect was from an engineering perspective. We had to get into all EFL Clubs, infrastructure had to be put in place and we needed to make sure we could get connectivity from all grounds in order for us to receive the live footage here at IMG Studios on a matchday. We had teams working on that pretty much 24/7 around the country until early August.”
With the exception of 80 Sky Bet Championship fixtures that featured four-camera production, last season’s iFollow coverage was purely single camera with no replays, graphics or branded in-play stats.
Moving to IMG has allowed the EFL to develop the product substantially. All (non-TV) Championship fixtures are now covered by four cameras, whilst all League One and League Two fixtures show replays and feature a far richer suite of graphics and branding; including in-play stats, team line-ups, league tables and substitutions.
Reasons behind the enhanced production is simple; to improve the broadcast output for iFollow subscribers to drive sales. The EFL’s recent partnership with IMG has meant that this is now an affordable solution at scale, when it was once not viable.
With up to 36 matches taking place at one time on an EFL matchday, the place is filled with producers, directors, editors, voiceover artists and many more, all working tirelessly to ensure that not only does the EFL have a product to be proud of, but that viewers at home are buying into an experience that is closely aligned with traditional broadcast standards. So how is it done?
“We knew we had to find roughly 50 people for each weekend and midweek matchday to work on the games,” Walker continues.
“On the production side we have a core team of six people,” he explains. “But we also look after the EFL highlights show on Quest so there is a Production Manager and Co-ordinator on that side too, making it roughly ten people that work in production on the EFL.
“On matchdays we have two people – a producer and a director – working on each Championship fixture, a single operator for all League One and League Two games and five engineers that work full-time monitoring the live footage should there be any issues with the feeds coming in. On top of that we’ve got all our freelance staff such as camera operators and voiceover artists who voice the highlights for both the Clubs and EFL on Quest.
“The training process started in July, we were running five training sessions a week and I think in total we trained up more than 250 freelance operators. We had to build ten new pods to cater for the Championship games, as they require multiple screens with a director and a producer. We also had to build the rest of the working space to accommodate the operators for League One and League Two games. It was all completely new.”
With 46 league games per season, the Carabao Cup and the Leasing.com Trophy, it’s no small operation with over 1,800 fixtures taking place across the course of the season in all competitions.
“It’s intense,” Walker says. “We’re always working two or three matchdays ahead to ensure we have the right people in place to deliver the service. With pretty much 36 games every weekend, we need about 70 camera operators weekly when you factor in it’s four per Championship game.
“On a matchday itself, three or four hours before kick-off our producers and engineers are on site here at Stockley Park, with the camera operators out at the grounds. We do a lot of tests to make sure we’re receiving the feeds here at the studio and there’s constant communication between everyone to make sure we’re ready for going live.”
The result is quality output for users of iFollow, especially those in the Championship.
“It’s hard to explain just how much improved the four-camera production is for viewers at home when watching a Championship game,” Walker goes on to say.
“It’s developed so much. You’re effectively getting a properly produced football match as opposed to a single-camera game, which people were getting before.
“We’re now able to bring the best angles of goals and different replays from different angles, making the product a real football product. It’s traditionally what you’d expect to see on television.
“In League One and League Two it’s still single camera coverage at this stage, but the introduction of replays and in-play stats and graphics throughout the game make it a far superior product. Fans want to see goals for a second time, they want to know who’s being substituted or who’s had the most possession and shots on target. It’s just an improved experience for everyone."
In November 2019, Portsmouth vs Ipswich Town attracted a huge iFollow audience for a midweek League One fixture, with over 2,500 match passes purchased for those unable to make the game at Fratton Park – the most sold by any League One club in a single fixture at the time of writing.
Sales of all products have risen, thanks in part, to all of these improvements (not just the introduction of four cameras in the Championship). As the service continues to develop, numbers continue to grow and there’s no doubt that Clubs are seeing the benefits with increased revenue being driven back to them.
Unlike those on the pitch however, the final whistle is not where it stops.
As producers and operators monitor their respective games for 90 minutes, across the room a number of voiceover artists flock in to write their scripts and voice various different games, whilst editors work tirelessly on a tight schedule to get highlights packages ready to distribute to Clubs and air on TV later that evening.
iFollow users are not the only ones to benefit from this new matchday operation, with voiced and unvoiced highlights packages created and distributed to the likes of Sky Sports, EFL Clubs, PGMOL, various scouting and data companies and of course, EFL on Quest.
“Sky Sports take all of our produced feeds across all leagues and run them online. For midweek games that are outside the broadcasting blackout they also use our feed to show the goals as they go in on Soccer Special,” Walker explains.
“Post-match we produce a number of highlights packages of each individual game. We do two-minute versions and ten-minute versions, both with and without commentary. These are uploaded to YouTube as well as sent to all the Clubs and Sky Sports to use online. We also send out the full 90 minutes to PGMOL for the match officials to review and companies like Opta who do a lot of their data analysis from this.
“All of this amounts to about 150 edits per matchday.”
And then of course there’s EFL on Quest. In the studio amongst the madness is highlights show host, Colin Murray and his guests, watching on. Alongside show producer, Tom Smith, together they conduct their own analysis, pick out key discussion points from the day’s action and incorporate it into a script for the show later that evening – all within a couple of hours of the final whistle.
We may only be halfway through at the time of writing, but it’s shaping up to be another season of progress with a product that is continually growing.
With the EFL and IMG committed to developing the service further, iFollow will continue to push the boundaries, bringing supporters of EFL Clubs closer than ever to the teams they follow.
With a number of fixtures over the Christmas period available for live streaming to the domestic audience, individual match passes are available on a match by match basis and can be purchased here: https://www.efl.com/iFollow/
For the second year running, the iFollow International Half Season Pass is now live and available.
Priced at £60, the pass is available to all supporters outside of the UK via your official club sites. It offers great value to fans vs purchasing weekly individual match passes, and helps to ensure that fans don't miss a second of the action whilst making amazing savings too.
For more information, and to subscribe to iFollow, click here.