EXCLUSIVE: Three weeks to prepare the most ‘ambitious’ overhaul in company history, Gary Neville and Co doing online training courses and technicians battling Graeme Souness’ dodgy home internet… INSIDE SKY SPORTS’ LOCKDOWN REBOOT

  • Sky Sports have undertaken sweeping changes to be ready to produce Premier League matches remotely
  • The number of staff inside stadiums has dropped by half and a lot has had to be done back at their HQ
  • Changes of the scale that have been rolled out would usually be planned for six months – they had three weeks
  • A quadruple-header of games – four back-to-back – will push their new equipment and planning to the limit 
  • All staff, behind camera and on-screen, had to take a purpose-built online course before returning to work 

Now halfway through the run of Premier League games following football’s return, bosses at Sky Sports can look back with incredulity, raise a smile, and wonder exactly how they pulled it all together in time. 

Sky have been broadcasting Premier League matches since the competition’s inception in 1992 – but not like this. Not with half the number of staff on-site at stadiums. Not with socially distanced interviews and with purpose-built production ‘trucks’ inside SkyHQ to pull off triple – and even quadruple – headers. Not amid a pandemic. And perhaps the biggest challenge of all; Graeme Souness’ questionable home broadband. 

‘We would plan for at least six months for some of the changes,’ director of operations, James Clement, explained to Sportsmail. ‘There would be lots of working groups, rehearsal days and those sorts of things. But we didn’t have the ability to do any of those…’ 

Sky Sports had three weeks to overhaul their operation to be ready to broadcast Premier League games after lockdown with an emphasis on social distancing measures. The main studio for presenters and analysts has become much more spacious to avoid close contact between individuals in what is one of the biggest changes as they emerged from Covid-19 lockdown

Rather than direct from production trucks outside stadiums, two matches are being broadcast concurrently either side of a fake wall that has been erected under new measures. The set-ups on the left and right have been built to mimic what directors had access to in the trucks outside stadiums. A director for the world feed coverage sits in between at a safe distance

Manchester City’s visit of Liverpool was broadcast on Sky and they had less than half of the people they usually have on site. Only around 300 people are allowed inside a stadium on game day, whereas usually Sky would have half that figure alone.

Temperature testing is now mandatory at SkyHQ as one of the many health and safety measures introduced after a pandemic as a member of security personal is captured on the new technology with one camera acting as an infra-red camera to pick up on the temperature of arrivals. The temperature cannot exceed 38 degrees celsius or the individual will be turned away

The coronavirus pandemic took football off screens for three months and it soon became apparent that any restart would require Sky to not only broadcast numerous games in a short amount of time, but also with limited boots on the ground. Fortunately for them, the groundwork to do just that had been laid years earlier.  

Remote-production – a method which relies less heavily on having staff on-site at the grounds of an event – has been utilised by Sky Sports dating back to 2015 with the US Open tennis in New York. 

That tennis major, along with the British and Irish Lions tour, have been covered and produced remotely while the broadcaster’s Formula One coverage is done remotely with minimal staff on the ground for race weekends, which returned for the first race of the season in Austria on Sunday. 

There were immediate challenges to conquer, though, with Souness’ WiFi speed causing all sorts of issues for the team working on the daily Football Show, which was a key part of maintaining programming during the 100-day live action hiatus. And then there was the time Sky Sports presenter Rob Wotton welcomed an unlikely guest onto The Football Show – as his window cleaner turned up at his house while he was live on air.

This lockdown has been anything other than dull at Sky, that’s for sure.  

– 100 games broadcast in 40 days 

– Number of Sky personnel in stadiums cut in half

– 15 cameras at each match, down from at least 25

– 8 Sound Operators trained to create crown noise and atmosphere

– 25-minute mandatory online health and safety course for all employees 

– Sky broadcast centre rebuilt in 14 days

– 2,000 crew members used post-restart

– Custom built replay centre built in Manchester

The Football Show was popular for past and present players and was a chance for staff to dip their toes in the water of the new-normal of producing content remotely. Living rooms and study’s quickly became makeshift galleries, mixing desks and home studios.

For the on-screen team, it meant sorting their own make-up and ensuring hair-cuts were in order – as Gary Neville called on his daughter to go for the once over with the clippers.

Main presenter David Jones joked to the Radio Times: ‘I hadn’t brushed my hair for about three months!

‘I know that Gary Neville’s daughter did his hair with some buzz clippers, and that had some interesting results!’

For Clement, the likes of Neville and Souness were quick to engage with the daily debate show with plans then being finalised as to how they could return to the studio together when action made its eventual comeback. 

‘The Football Show every morning, they have been engaged and we have had great communications with all of them,’ he said. ‘They were ready and eager to make sure they worked within any rules that were presented to them.’ 

‘They [on-air talent] started framing on mobile and then we worked to get high-quality cameras to them. Some are still on mobile. Everyone working on that show is working completely from home.’

The Premier League is a completely different level to something as relatively straight-forward broadcast like The Football Show, and brings with it so many more complexities.

‘When we got to working our way through lockdown, having got “Work from Home” for as many of the staff as possible it was definitely a challenge when making content,’ Clement continued. 

‘Once we got through making virtual galleries for people so we could do the watch-along and The Football Show and all the extra content we wanted to do during lockdown we could then start to plan how we could actually use all the technology that we had built and put the Premier League into it. 

A Covid-19 Welfare Officer is on hand to do a temperature test on a staff member before they can get access to the main site. The CWO conducts their work in gloves, a protective face mask as well as a face shield cover in a bid to limit contamination

‘The Premier League is a much bigger scale than doing the Football League. 

‘The number of cameras is pretty big and so to be able to transition what we had built in two weeks – we only had two weeks to turn it around, three weeks at the most to prepare – we had to turn a lot of facilities into production for the Premier League which was something we were not thinking about doing for a few years yet.’ 

In the end the decision was brought forward dramatically by the global pandemic and left them with little option but to revolutionise their approach given they would be the leading broadcaster to show games when football returned, which it did as part of Project Restart on June 17 with Aston Villa hosting Sheffield United at Villa Park.  

Between football shutting down and Sky cameras beaming images of Villa and Sheffield United players taking a knee at kick-off in the opening match back, behind the scenes it was a hive of activity. With around five-and-a-half months lost in preparation time for some of the sweeping changes to their operation, there really was none to waste. 

‘We were committed to minimising travel and absolutely maximising the use of technology,’ Phil Marshall, director of production at Sky, explained when asked how they kick-started the lockdown revolution. 

The biggest empty studio space has been taken over by the sport department at Sky HQ as they mastered remote production for live matches. With half as many staff now at stadiums, an overflow back at base has seen a desire for bigger facilities and this space was transformed into a hub for sports broadcasting in just two weeks.

One of the sound supervisors keeps an eye across two screens of the same game as he controls the artificial crowd noise and that has been an ambitious project which has been undertaken in a short period of time to go along with the evolved coverage

‘We wanted to have the smallest number of people involved and yet maintain the highest level of quality. It was essential for us that when you watched Premier League it doesn’t feel any different. We had to develop a plan and it involved dozens of virtual meetings over the last few months to engage with stakeholders, suppliers, to understand their thinking and do all we could to create common practices across everyone and try to reduce the questions so we can keep working through knowing there is this huge amount of sport and football that was about to come. 

‘We had loads of meetings with Sky Health and Safety colleagues, doctors working on behalf of the leagues, tech suppliers, as well as our fellow broadcasters and sports production companies. James and I were really keen to work with colleagues across the industry to share learnings and be able to align on the safety of our crews.’ 

A close up shot of the technology available at the hands of the sounds team. The sound engineers use a remote pad similar to what is used in esports to deliver the artificial crowd noise during gameplay. Sky have provided crowd noise for video games in recent years so had access to a database of reactions that they could now use themselves to replicate atmosphere. 

As well as vast signage around corridors and on-set for the likes of Souness and Neville to adhere to for social distancing reasons, health and safety required every member of staff, on-screen or off-screen, to take a purpose-built e-learning module. Without completing it, staff were unable to return to work. It was non-negotiable. 

‘It is an e-learning course that we built throughout early May which was for everyone, those on screen and those behind the scenes, and everyone had to do it before returning to a Sky Sports production. Ultimately that impressed distances and hygiene as the two key areas,’ Marshall said.

‘We found that everybody has adopted really well, understood all of those processes and protocols that we have had to put in place and have worked really collaboratively as a team to deliver.’ 

Those sorts of distancing measures have become commonplace across many businesses now returning as England emerges from lockdown but at Sky, many more problems needed to be addressed. Pundits gathering around a touchscreen has been abandoned for the time being while there remains a new take on manager interviews with boom microphones on the touchline used in place of handheld ones huddled together in a tunnel.

Perspex screens are one of many measures introduced by the broadcaster to ensure safety of staff broadcasting at HQ. Posters and signs (one seen left) are dotted around the campus as a reminder for staff to take care with hygiene at work

The most ambitious change was converting an office space into a graphics suite to bring that entire team back to the base rather than being out on the road. Typically they would spend six months on a move of such scale whereby a team would be taken from a stadium and brought back in house, but Project Restart meant they had just weeks.

While Neville and Co have bought into everything expected of them, stress levels, both Clement and Marshall, explained were at its highest when overhauling the graphics team.  

With space at a premium, an empty office space was renovated into a functional graphics suite with socially-distanced desks, multiple computer monitors and large television screens looking to replicate the facilities that became commonplace in production trucks at stadiums. 

Graphics are integral to the coverage and that commitment saw what was described by the pair of directors as ‘the most ambitious thing we have ever done’ rolled out to ensure they could remain at the forefront.  

Clement explained: ‘We would normally spend around six months planning a change like this if we were taking a sport from being fully on-site to fully remote. We would plan for at least six months, there would be lots of working groups, rehearsal days and those sorts of things. 

‘We didn’t have the ability to do any of those but it demonstrated how brilliantly the teams that we work with are able to both build the technology and the suppliers to those operating it. 

‘It is different for them to be operating the graphics back at Sky. The first time they did it it was a completely different way of working for them but they have worked together for so long they have a natural connection and adapt under the circumstances. There hasn’t been a discernible impact to the customer and that was our second priority, the people first.’ 

A camera operator sports a face mask as he is positioned in the amber zone on the touchline at Newcastle’s St James’ Park. Sky now have around 15 cameras at Premier League matches, which is a marked decrease on previous numbers. 

Graphics was not the only team having to wrap their heads around the new-way of working, the ‘new normal’ as it has been coined by government. 

Sound engineers have had to grasp the addition of artificial crowd noise from a Sky Sports database that has been of use to EA Sports’ FIFA game in the last five to six years, while a whole new replay centre was erected in Manchester to provide another space for staff living outside of London. 

‘They had about two weeks where we bought some new kit for them and told them what we thought we wanted and they ran with it,’ Clement explained. Early discussions of which sound to use saw them land with what was right in front of them the whole time – their own database previously used in video games. 

‘They have loved it. The team operating the Sky Sports crowd system are using something like esport gaming-type systems where they hit the button and it does the sound that they want.’ 

On the brand-new, purpose-built replay centre in the north-west, Clement said: ‘We wanted to create some geographical diversity so some operators didn’t feel like they needed to come to London. What it meant was we had to build the facility without any of us ever seeing it because we couldn’t travel up there ourselves to make sure it was OK. 

‘We had to put a lot of trust into things that we would normally have been all over. We would have been pacing out of the rooms, making sure it was all perfect! But we put a lot of trust in our suppliers because we couldn’t do it ourselves. 

‘There was a lot (of anxiety) when we look back on the opening couple of days. Phil and I, in the jobs that we do, we spend most of our time looking forward to final whistles in whatever event we are doing!’ 

So, a quadruple header on Sunday with games at Wolves, Aston Villa, Tottenham (a north London derby, no less) and Bournemouth, is that even possible? Just about, was the message. Just about. 

Kelly Cates, Micah Richards and Roy Keane keep their distance from each other as the on-site Sky team at the Etihad Stadium. All Sky personnel had to take part and pass an online safety course before being able to return to work, including on-air talent

‘That has never been done before,’ Clement said. ‘When we built this idea we obviously didn’t know about the fixtures. We had a rough idea we would do more games but we didn’t know how they would pan out, how the fixtures would land. We had to design a solution without knowing what we were doing, what the actual games were going to be! Thankfully the hardest set-up, aside from the last day of the season which is a whole different thing, the hardest set we built is just about enough to do this quadruple header. 

‘It is pushing us right to the limit of what we can design but we are really pleased that we managed to design it. It is one of those things where we will never do four games in a day in the discussions but the fixtures came out and we are doing four games in one day.’ 

Three suites were built – a fourth was built as a back-up which now seems like a masterstroke – just to cope with the increased workload that was on the horizon with the condensed schedule to complete the season.  

‘We set ourselves a limit with the amount of vehicles and kit that are out in the field at the stadiums,’ Clement said. 

‘They move around between stadiums and we built enough facilities at Sky and in Manchester to be able to cope. Each game we need to do our checks and rehearsals and that happens while another game is on. While that game is on, you need to check facilities are working at the other stadium so we need to have four set-ups running at the same time. You can’t just have one facility and jump between the games, we need to have all four running. 

‘We knew we would probably have three in a day and we built one spare as a back-up and in this case we will be using them all! We also want to make sure that we give the crews as much time as possible. We want to give them as much notice so they know where they are working and what they are going to be doing. Building that fourth option meant ensuring we have enough crew which we have.’ 

That quadruple header represents an exhausting day of production for everyone at SkyHQ but before they even take to their seat behind a mixing desk or a graphics monitor, the day starts by meeting with a Covid Welfare Officer (CWO) upon arrival. 

In what was previously the Monday Night Football studio, the use of touchscreen has been parked for now while analysts Jamie Redknapp (left) and Graeme Souness (right), along with presenter David Jones (middle), sit apart with added space

CWO’s are present at all broadcasting sites, as well as at Sky Studios, to oversee adherence to social distancing and also to ensure temperature checks are completed before being handed a wristband, granting access. 

That is very much ‘Phase One’ of getting a Premier League game on air.  

‘I would start by saying that planning starts about 10 days in advance with all the paperwork submitted before a game,’ Mitchell reveals. ‘Then the first real piece when you start to think about the match is the camera rig and some of the technology arriving on site for a rig day the day before the event. 

‘Let me jump in here,’ Clement said, eager to explain the key differences in operations pre- and post-lockdown.

‘Previously at every Premier League game we would have started from scratch on site. Trucks would have turned up on the rig day and everything would have been built from scratch but what we wanted to do with the way we set this up was to ensure the least number of people needed to go to those sites. We did an install which took over our studio space – we just found the biggest space at Sky – and built the other half of the OB (Outside Broadcast), permanently rigged there for the remainder of the Premier League so a large portion of the rig was already done and ready every single day. 

‘That meant we just had a minimal amount of things (to do) which meant a smaller truck. We have less cameras anyway as we have pulled specifications back to make it quicker but it was a much smaller truck and a much smaller footprint than we would normally have which cuts down the time.’ 

While the early stages of lockdown had bosses battling the Souness’ household internet, they have emerged out of the other side as a shining light in adapting to football’s new normal. What should have taken six months, took no more than three weeks. 

And all this while as a viewer, we would have been none the wiser which says it all. The revolution has proven a roaring success. 

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