A blur of wheels. A flash of bib numbers. They’re gone.
Spectating at a road race can last a split second as riders fly past bystanders – not the friendliest of viewing sports, nor easiest to capture on camera.
“In the business of remote television production, racing and golf are two of the most technically challenging sports to cover because the action happens over such a large physical area, sometimes miles,” said Matt Wilson, a television producer who has worked on streaming bicycle races.
But as technology becomes more affordable and race promoters begin to see the value of broadcasting events, cycling is streaming into more homes.
Shining a light on bike racing
Take the Sunny King Criterium in Anniston, Alabama. It’s the second stop on USA Cycling’s Pro Road Tour and part of the two-day Alabama Cycling Classic.
The crit’s online broadcast, in its seventh year, makes it possible for people in 123 countries to see and hear the action. The race garnered more than 27,000 website page views last year, according to organizers.
In addition to the U.S. and Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy topped the list for Sunny King’s online viewership. In the U.S., some of the top cities represented by viewership included Atlanta, Birmingham, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York City and Nashville.
Sunny King was an early adopter of video production and broadcasting for bicycle races, going back to 2008 when organizers streamed footage to closed-circuit televisions and a large screen video board for course-side fans. Live streaming began two years later with the help of Matt Wilson, a director/producer at WEAC TV24 in east Alabama.
“At the time, there was no blueprint for how to cover a downtown criterium,” said Wilson, who has moved from TV24 to ESPN. “We made it up as we went and learned better coverage techniques every year. After a couple years of producing a live video feed for the big screen, it occurred to me that if we streamed to the internet then fans all over the world could watch. The response was overwhelming.”
What it takes to broadcast a crit
For viewers, the live feed for the Sunny King Criterium is free. But Wilson says it is still a challenge to pull everything together.
“This type of broadcast generally requires miles of cable, big crews, and big budgets,” Wilson said. “Over the years, we added cameras, a play-by-play announcer and high-definition.”
Sunny King broadcasts a full day of amateur and junior races before the pro events in the evening.
“Itʼs really cool for the amateurs to have their races streamed,” said Brad Sohner, who is the announcer and co-producer for the online broadcast for a second year. “It gives a chance for the friends, family members, and sponsors of the amateur team riders to see them race, which is sometimes a rare treat for athletes who travel a lot.”
Sohner said the key to broadcasting a race live involves teamwork, time and technology. In Anniston, they’ll have a staff of 26 people on site for the broadcast, running six miles of cable for fast internet connection speed and operating 11 camera feeds, Sohner said.
“The production really starts weeks in advance, gathering interviews, editing features, creating graphics, scripting, and confirming the crew,” Sohner said. “Then it all comes together in a very small window before the event.”
Deploying a drone
Sunny King coverage, which will go live on April 8 on clippedin.bike, will include seven staffed cameras, three fixed camera positions and a drone flying above the course, provided by Calhoun County. The drone coverage required a special permit from the county and approval by the city, which wanted to up the ante on the broadcast coverage, organizers said.
“Itʼs really exciting to have live aerial video around the venue this year, especially for the many exciting sprints,” Sohner said. The drone footage will be shown in real-time, which is very unique. It helps illustrate for viewers the strategy of sprints and teamwork in the races.”
Calhoun County will provide the drone on race day. The batteries on the drone only last 15 to 20 minutes, so a half dozen additional batteries will be needed, used in rotation, to keep the drone in the air as much as possible on Saturday.
On the ground connectivity
On-the-ground power is another necessity for broadcasting races. Alabama Power and their infrastructure provides reliable energy resources for the compound rather than using multiple generators. The production truck alone uses about 150 amps; most standard American homes use 15 or 20 amp circuits.
CableOne and the City of Anniston work together to provide solid high-speed internet connectivity. The bandwidth serves for the high definition upload, as well as support for the festival vendors and staff.
Sohner said to achieve high-definition, redundant streams, they pair CableOne’s dedicated cable network with the city’s internal network, which doesn’t see much traffic on the weekends.
“Oddly enough, the closest connection for that is in [a] morgue, which is just beneath our feet in the truck,” Sohner said. “It was kind of creepy getting it hooked up the first time.”
Sohner said the crew also relies on Jacksonville State University’s students and staff to work on set up and race operations. He noted the camera operators also put in a long day outside, sometimes having to sit through terrible weather conditions.
“And then we pack up in the middle of the night, set up for the McClellan Road Race and are back at it a few hours later for the road race on Sunday,” Sohner said.
Challenges of broadcasting a road race
For the Sunday production of the two road races, the production crew uses two cameras on motorcycles and five cameras at the start/finish area.
A circuit of 16 miles is used for the road race, with many miles in rural areas that are out of cellular phone range. It was a challenge to produce a live broadcast without the use of helicopters and specially-equipped trucks for radio-frequency engineering, organizers said. The solution was to record each lap of the race and stream with a one-hour delay.
Sunny King broadcast crew includes:
- Director (calls the shots)
- Technical Director (pushes the buttons to make whatever the director says happen)
- Replay Operator
- Graphics Operator
- Graphics Coordinator
- Video Engineer
- Audio Mixer
- Network Engineer (keeps an eye on the internet and stream)
- 2 truck engineers
- 7 camera operators
- 2 field engineers
- 1 drone operator
- 2 commentators
- 2 motocycle camera operators
- 2 motorcycle drivers
A basic web stream with one camera can be as low as about $500 to $1,000 for one day.
With a large staff, multiple cameras, production resources, high definition and more, costs range from $10,000 to $20,000 per day, organizers said.
Alabama Cycling Classic provided content for this article.