With innovations on the track and new ideas off it, Rhona McLeod examines the work going into bringing viewers closer to the action at the World Championships
As the finest specimens of the sport gather in Budapest for this week’s World Championships, so too will a global media presence dedicated to the storytelling of the event.
When it comes to television and broadcasting, while each country may decide to send their own reporters, presenters, commentators or news crews, all the filming of the event, including commentary, will be supplied by a Host Broadcaster – World Athletics Productions.
The Host Broadcaster will provide footage of absolutely every single run, jump and throw. They will provide around 300 hours of broadcast material for what is expected to be a massive global audience. It is then up to individual outlets how they use that footage.
James Lord is Director, Broadcast at World Athletics and explains the reach of the event. “We’ll be distributing the championships to well over 200 countries around the world,” he says. “Over the course of the championships, we expect over one billion people will watch at some point – whether that’s part of the live feed, delayed highlights, digital content or through various news outlets.
“I think a lot of people don’t realise just how big the World Athletics Championships really are. We’re very lucky to have an event that still commands reach all around the world.”
The broadcast planning for Budapest began over two years ago for what is a vast sporting production. At its heart, storytelling is key.
“First and foremost it’s passion and an understanding of the sport,” says Lord when asked about the ambitions World Athletics have for their Host Broadcaster. “The most important thing is that they really understand the journeys the athletes have gone through.”
The man directly charged with delivering the story of Budapest is Mark Fulton, Executive Producer of ITN Productions; the team responsible for assembling the World Athletics Productions workforce and masterplan.
A former Commonwealth Games 400m hurdler for Scotland, Fulton knows all too well just how different televising athletics is when compared to other sports.
“A Premier League football match has around 30 cameras, and one truck,” he says by way of an example. “We have 10 of those [trucks] and we have around 120 cameras in the stadium. The scale of it from a technical point of view is enormous, and trying to weave it all together is a challenge.”
When we are watching the event, at home via our national broadcasters such as the BBC or NBC, all the action from Budapest will have been provided to them, by the Host Broadcaster. As Fulton explains, these broadcasters (also known as rights holders) are absolutely spoilt for choice.
“We have about 10 feeds so we can cover every event, from track events to horizontal jumps, vertical jumps, shot put, long throws and marathon race walks,” he adds. “Everything is shown live, and all this coverage is available to rights holders.
“Some of them have their own studios, some of them have reporters and they dip in and dip out for their own reasons, but everything is available to them. On average, we broadcast eight hours a day. If you think about multiple feeds over a nine-day championship, we probably film somewhere in the region of 300 hours.”
The Host Broadcaster workforce amounts to over 400 people – an international team of freelance professionals, all experts in their field of television production, engineering or broadcasting.
The voices behind the microphones also know a thing or two about competing at the highest level. As we can reveal in AW, there is a very recent addition of a current world champion to the team.
“Sadly, Jake Wightman isn’t going to be able to compete at the World Championships because he’s injured,” explains Fulton. “But he is going to commentate for us on both the men’s and women’s 1500m, which is a fantastic coup for us. It’s exciting we’re attracting that calibre of athlete to come and work with us.”
Olympic and three-time world decathlon champion Dan O’Brien returns after his debut in Oregon last summer. The American joins a plethora of Olympians including world indoor 800m champion Tamsyn Manou of Australia, plus British world medallists Hannah England and Jenny Meadows.
Road racing and race walking will be voiced by Olympic distance athletes Mark Coogan (USA), plus AW contributors Mara Yamauchi and Tim Hutchings. The veteran commentator Rob Walker perhaps can’t quite boast the same athletic pedigree of his colleagues, but he more than makes up for it in knowledge and enthusiasm.
Sports broadcasting is traditionally a male dominated profession but in World Athletics Productions there is a determined effort to replicate the gender balance which is enjoyed on the field of play.
READ MORE: BBC coverage of the World Champs
“Athletics is a 50:50 male-female sport, says Fulton. “I think in terms of our commentary team, it was always seen as a male lead commentator and a female co-commentator. We’ve really expanded that out, so we have a 50:50 split of male-female commentators.
“And what we show on the screen has to be reflected behind the screens as well. We have made a real conscious effort to bring on some of the best female directors and producers in the business, with a wealth of athletics knowledge and as passionate about it as we are.
“I think it’s been slightly more difficult in the technical areas, but it’s getting better. We’ve made a conscious effort that when we come to Glasgow [for the World Athletics Indoor Championships, 2024], we will have a 50:50 split team.”
» Rhona McLeod will be the mixed zone reporter for World Athletics Productions in Budapest
» The above article is an abridged version of a feature that appears in the August issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here