With the advent of Covid-19 in March 2020 the country found itself in lockdown. The Scottish football season finished and football clubs, like all sport, entered an extended period of hibernation. As the summer progressed it became obvious that mass participation events would not be possible for some time although the idea of football returning behind closed doors became reality.
Normally broadcast rights for football matches belong to the SPFL and in turn to the major broadcasters. However, subject to certain restrictions Scottish clubs could stream live matches to domestic audiences  on a Pay Per View (PPV) basis.
This provides welcome income to the clubs, helps to maintain the supporters’ interest and provides a morale boost to the nation at a difficult time.
Although the ability to stream matches sounds technically simple, the challenges for clubs cannot be understated. Clubs were required, overnight, to transform into TV production companies, IT specialists and on-line marketeers.
Over the spring and summer of 2020, Morton assembled a team of specialist companies and volunteers to deliver the stream.
The eventual team comprised
- Broadband Cloud Solutions, as stream delivery using Amazon Web Services, web site hosting and paywall.
- Tweetie Pie Media, Web Site Design and support
- The Production Team, headed by Gerry McDade of GMFC supported by a team of capable volunteers.
Broadband Cloud Solutions recommended Amazon Web Services as a streaming platform. Amazon has a massively scalable platform capable of delivering programmes to a worldwide audience. Amazon provides all the necessary technology as cloud services on a pay-as-you go basis. Using the Amazon cloud the club can be confident of supporting small audiences of a few hundred viewers rising to thousands if necessary.
AWS provides the necessary cloud services to take the video feed from the stadium and encode it suitable for delivery to the viewers. Viewers all have different devices and different quality internet connections, so it’s important to encode the feed at several resolutions so that everyone can view at with the best possible quality that their device will support.
The challenge for the Broadband Cloud Team was to make the feed available while adhering to the viewing rules set by the SPFL:
- The match should only be available to paying viewers (including season ticket holders)
- The match should only be viewable on a single device for each paid stream
- Video on demand should only be available to international viewers on match day, this restriction is lifted at midnight.
The system had to be ready for the start of the season in October of 2020.
The Main Web Site – www.gmfc.net
Greenock Morton’s main web site is built to market the club and to provide a news site. The site provides rich content and high-quality media but does not meet the lightweight needs of a site that may be required to serve lots of users in short order in advance of the match.
For this reason, ticket sales are devolved to a separate web shop on tv.gmfc.net. Nevertheless, a highly available web site is still required for match day. This is particularly important for viewers from the Away Team who are likely to visit the main site first looking for directions to buy a ticket. The web site uses the autoscaling features of Amazon’s EC2 service to run with minimal resources throughout the week and to scale up rapidly in advance of a match to make sure all visitors have good experience.
Web Shop – tv.gmfc.net
The lightweight web shop was created using a combination of WordPress and WooCommerce, the most commonly used web management and ecommerce tools. The key aspect of this design was to keep the site lightweight and responsive as the site must respond to a potentially large number of customers arriving in the minutes before a match. The design objective was to keep the payload of each page down by limiting unnecessary graphics and to minimise the number of clicks required to make a purchase and view the match. Customers can buy their tickets at any time after they have gone on sale and return to their “My Matches” account to view the match. The confirmation email sent out when the ticket is bought contains a one click link to take viewers straight to the match without revisiting the web site or having to log in.
The web shop also makes use of the autoscaling features of Amazon’s EC2 and Serverless Database technology services – again the service operates with minimal resources to allow occasional ticket sales but scales up on-demand on matchday to deliver a high availability performant platform capable of selling hundreds of tickets in the few minutes before the match. The system is capable of scaling to sell thousands of tickets in short order if required.
Ticket sales are conducted through the popular WordPress addon – WooCommerce. This is the world’s leading e-commerce solution with many features for marketing and upselling. The club was able to use the coupon feature to issue all season ticket holders with a unique code which allows 100% discount on League matches for the season. As Christmas approached the club was able to use the features of WooCommerce to sell raffle tickets, multi-match deals and match gift cards.
Live Streaming Technology
Amazon has an impressive range of media services which is used to deliver reliable and scalable live streamed events.
Leading on from the programme production team in the stadium Amazon’s Media Live collects the stream from up to two separate sources (for reliability) and prepares the feed for the second stage of packaging. The packaging stage transforms the stream into different streaming standards and qualities to provide compatibility with different devices and to give viewers the best quality video stream for their connection.
The HTTP Live Stream protocol was selected (HLS) as it is supported by a wide range of devices. Initially, the stream was set up to use HD 1080p, 720p and two lower resolution feeds all sent at 30 frames per second, however after viewer testing, 720p at the higher frame rate of 60 frames per second was found to give a much better user experience for fast moving sports.
Media package delivers the streams and retains the data to allow users to rewind the programme by 15 minutes and to be harvested into Amazon’s S3 storage for later video on demand viewing.
Media package, on its own, is not suitable for delivering the stream directly to a large audience across the world, and so the final stage of delivery is Amazon CloudFront. CloudFront is a worldwide Content Delivery Network (CDN) which holds copies of the stream in over 200 locations throughout the world. This is the service that provides the massive scalability of the service for the club. CloudFront will deliver the same user experience to a handful of users as it will to 10,000 users across the globe. Since CloudFront costs are based on the amount of data consumed, the overall cost to the club is proportional to ticket sales and represents only a small proportion of the ticket price. No major up-front investment or planning is required regardless of the expected audience size.
As the season progressed, Video on Demand was added, initially to overseas users only as broadcasting rights were restricted in the UK. Amazon CloudFront can report the location of a viewer and this information is be used by WooCommerce to decide on whether to offer the match stream. Video on Demand has been extended to UK users the day after the match, so the potential audience is expanded.
The use of Video-on-Demand is allowing the club to build up a library of archive match day programmes for future training use and end of season highlights.
Protecting the Stream
Making sure that only paying customers can view the stream is an important to protect the club’s revenue and to comply with broadcasting rights covering the copyright of the stream. The technology which protects against this is part of Amazon’s CloudFront, but the integration to the ticketing system was carried out by Broadband Cloud Solutions’ programming team.
The web shop protects initial access to the stream, but a technical user would easily be able to determine the underlying location of the stream and share it with others. In fact, the same information is conveniently shared with users in the sign-up email.
No effort is made to protect the stream by preventing users from sharing their link. The strategy instead is to discourage this behaviour by making it impossible to use the same link twice. The viewer checks with the shop every minute to confirm that there is only one user of that link. If the link is used a second time the shop will disable the first stream within a few minutes. This strategy has guided the users’ behaviour over the first few matches, customer service calls for failing streams caused by link sharing have largely stopped as customers have realised the consequences of sharing links and credentials.
CloudFront metrics allow the number of active viewers to be compared to the tickets sold. These numbers track each other accurately suggesting that no widespread misuse of the system has taken place and at the time of writing no evidence has emerged of the service being pirated to public platforms.
The Production Team
From an early stage in the project, Greenock had decided that the production would be covered by professional commentators, Gerry McDade and Andy Ritchie. However, the production roles of camera operators, production director, VTs, graphics and captions have been picked up by an enthusiastic team of volunteers. There was some belief that televising a football match was a straightforward process, and during the 2020/2021 season several clubs attempted to use automated cameras. In general, this did create a viewable stream of the football match, but it lacked many of the features that make a sports programme entertaining.
- Lively commentary from an experienced team
- Pre and post-match interviews with the players and managers
- Highlights of previous matches and replays
- Club community involvement with raffles and sponsorship
The production team typically produces 35-40 minutes additional varied programme in addition to the match itself.
The production system was developed as a team effort with Patrick Quinn from Glasgow Caledonian University providing his experience in streaming from previous events including Celtic Connections. The kit has subsequently evolved over the season as the club has invested in streaming equipment including a pro level camera and powerful laptop. A plethora of additional cables, microphones and audio equipment have also been acquired. For the internet connection, the stadium already had a 100M fibre leased line. This is a high-quality network connection capable of providing the necessary bandwidth to send the feed to Amazon. For some high-profile matches the in-stadium team has operated with two laptops for high-availability and this requires an upstream bandwidth of at least 20Mbit/s.
Core to shipping the stream out of the stadium to Amazon’s media processing is a powerful laptop computer running Open Broadcast Studio (OBS). This is free software is widely used by professional broadcasters and can capture the feeds from the cameras, mixing them with other sources such as commentary and on-screen graphics before finally encoding the stream for transmission to Amazon. OBS is technically capable of meeting all the production needs however for convenience the production team uses a small 4 channel vision mixer to select the broadcast camera during the match – the large buttons of the vison mixer are easier to use than selecting sources using the laptop’s mouse.
The production location was chosen at the back of the stand because of the availability of power and a network connection for the laptop. A dedicated network connection was eventually run from the main stadium router to protect against potential disruption of the shared network in the stand from other users.
The ‘Ton TV team were amused when filming a match which the BBC were also covering. The BBC arrived with six trucks and a substantial crew to rig the cameras and equipment, but crucially had a substantial catering truck and a warm indoor production area for the director and team. Of course, the ‘Ton TV team had the better programme in the end, but the catering truck and heating is something to think about for next season 😊
The commentary position at the back of the stand gives a good view of the match play.
The midfield camera position with operator Jacky together with the fixed camera used to show the commentary position.
Assistant director Mark at the controls of the vision mixer during match play.
Camera operators include Jacky – a long-time supporter of filming for the club and Craig, a professional cameraman usually focussed on golf, but also a long time Morton supporter.
Other key volunteer members of the production team include Gareth a digital design student who prepares excellent on-screen graphics, pre-match interviews and post-match highlights. During matches sound mixing, vision mixing and direction duties are shared between Mark and Patrick
Post-match production is often a team effort from Gareth, Craig, Jacky and Mark who create a professional package of highlights, mixing the recordings from each of the cameras, often offering a perspective that was not shown on the live programme.
Finally, the BCS team of Alan and Stuart contribute time to making sure the web site sales go smoothly and that the stream output is monitored for quality on match days.
BCS is delighted to be involved as both a supplier and volunteer member of the team that produces a consistently professional programme week after week – described by one visiting fan as “The gold standard for Scottish Football”.
For a sample of some of the output – click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oBd6xpzfqg
To buy a match stream visit https://tv.gmfc.net.
“From a blank piece of paper and a moving feast regarding what could be broadcast, Alan Lorimer and his team at BCS created a streaming and payment system, which is one of the top offerings in the UK, and brings the Club a significant revenue stream. At all times during the process, BCS kept us up to speed on developments and tweaks in a professional and easily understandable manner, and brought together all components with their expertise. In short they played a blinder and I would highly recommend their services”
Greenock Morton FC
 It has always been possible to stream to international audiences but not necessarily commercially viable.