SPREAD­ING THE WORD

The Cir­cuit of Ire­land gam­bled on a pi­o­neer­ing idea for TV, and it worked. By David Evans

Motor Sport News - - Rally Streaming - Pho­tos: FIA ERC

There was a man – or a woman – sit­ting some­where in Peru watch­ing Se­bas­tian Mar­shall in a hat and in the rain in North­ern Ire­land.

Our South Amer­i­can friend stayed tuned as Mar­shall in­tro­duced us to a time­keeper kit­ted out en­tirely in high-vis. Had it not been for the den­sity of cloud cover and ac­com­pa­ny­ing driz­zle, the Day­glo or­ange out­fit could prob­a­bly have been seen from Lima it­self.

The en­tirely pleas­ant chap ex­plained his role be­fore ex­cus­ing him­self to go and talk to the driver of a course car, leav­ing Mar­shall to fill some more. Which he did. Bril­liantly.

And still we watched. And watched in num­bers mea­sur­ing in six fig­ures.

The de­ci­sion to beam last month’s Cir­cuit of Ire­land around the world live was ge­nius. Not to men­tion a roaring suc­cess. What it wasn’t was rocket sci­ence. Ten years ago (prob­a­bly more like 15 now) then World Rally Cham­pi­onship rights holder David Richards talked about the po­ten­tial for watch­ing ral­ly­ing on your mo­bile phone, wher­ever you might find your­self on planet Earth.

Ral­ly­ing, DR reck­oned, was tai­lor-made for the in­ter­net and the in­ter­net was tai­lor-made for tele­phones.

A decade and a half down the line, Bobby Wil­lis (the Cir­cuit of Ire­land’s event di­rec­tor) proved David Richards right.

For two days, co-driv­ers Mar­shall and Trevor Agnew and sports broad­cast­ing gu­rus Jon Des­bor­ough and Lisa O’sul­li­van fired colour, hu­mour, in­sight, de­tail, news and, most im­por­tantly, pic­tures into the Cir­cuit’s cor­ner of cy­berspace.

As soon as the Belfast event was up and run­ning on the Fri­day morn­ing, a stu­dio on the out­skirts of the city went live with Des­bor­ough and Agnew an­chor­ing al­most 24 hours of in­ter­net telly.

Out on the road, Mar­shall and O’sul­li­van in­ter­viewed every­body and any­body from re­groups, ser­vice and the end of stages. Be­tween the chat, there was pre-recorded ac­tion from the stages and plenty of ban­ter. It was ral­ly­ing’s very own, muchde­layed eureka mo­ment.

The up­load abil­ity has been around for years and cam­era tech­nol­ogy’s now cheaper and more ac­ces­si­ble than ever be­fore – which begs the ques­tion of why this kind of broad­cast op­por­tu­nity is miss­ing at the sport’s high­est lev­els. The an­swer is a sim­ple one: me­dia rights.

There was day-long cov­er­age from last year’s Rally GB, bril­liantly hosted by Steve Rider and Henry Hope-frost – but it was only avail­able in the ser­vice park and on big screens in the stages. Mil­lions of folk around the world would have lapped up such a ser­vice.

Un­doubt­edly, Wil­lis’s plans would have caused con­ster­na­tion among the Eurosport types who pro­mote the ERC and do so to sell tele­vi­sion around the world. Wil­lis comes at this from a dif­fer­ent an­gle.

“I don’t see what we did as be­ing in com­pe­ti­tion with Eurosport’s bril­liant cov­er­age of the Cir­cuit of Ire­land,” he says, “of course it wasn’t. What I think we did was drive peo­ple to the cov­er­age. We plugged the Eurosport cov­er­age and I think peo­ple would have been more tuned in to the tele­vi­sion cov­er­age than ever af­ter watch­ing the live stream.”

Wil­lis is jus­ti­fi­ably proud of what he and his team achieved last month.

“As far as I can see, we’re the first rally at this [ERC or WRC] level to do this and it was a huge achieve­ment,” he says. “We’ve al­ways been very well aware of the po­ten­tial for stream­ing; in 2012 we streamed the New­tow­nards stage and planned more for the fol­low­ing year.”

Heavy snow stopped the Cir­cuit in its tracks in 2013, but the mas­ter­plan was al­ways at the fore­front of Wil­lis’ mind. Ear­lier this year, he de­cided to jump in and see what could be achieved.

“One of the things I’m most proud of,” he says, “is the way we’ve pulled in lo­cal re­sources to make this work. We’ve worked with North­ern Ir­ish in­ter­net tech­ni­cians and me­dia ex­perts. What we ended up with is, I be­lieve, a fan­tas­tic prod­uct that every­body can be very proud of.

“At the time there were a few folk who asked if we needed to do this, couldn’t we and shouldn’t we fo­cus the in­vest­ment – both fi­nan­cial and time – into the run­ning of the event? As far as I’m con­cerned, we’ve come out of the dark ages on the Cir­cuit this year – we’ve fi­nally given folk around the world the chance to re­ally keep in touch with the rally. The ra­dio ser­vice is fan­tas­tic, but what they say about a pic­ture be­ing worth a thou­sand words is ex­actly right. What the ra­dio guys do is fan­tas­tic, truly fan­tas­tic, but what we did was bring those words to life.”

The re­sponse to the stream took even Wil­lis by sur­prise.

“It was watched in more than 130 coun­tries around the world,” he adds. “In to­tal, there were more than two mil­lion min­utes of Cir­cuit of Ire­land cov­er­age – that’s 3.8 years of view­ing watched over those two days. How good is that? And how good is that for North­ern Ire­land? Peo­ple from so many coun­tries saw the beau­ti­ful, stun­ning scenery we have on of­fer here for the first time. That’s got to be a win­ner. And the best bit is, we can see that peo­ple were gen­uinely us­ing their mo­bile phones and their tablets to watch. Heck, we were even do­ing the same – I had it on my phone ev­ery time I wasn’t talk­ing into the thing or in rally con­trol or in a meet­ing. It was fan­tas­tic.”

The next step is un­doubt­edly to bring live pic­tures from the cars into the cov­er­age, but the cost of that is vast. Im­me­di­ately it means fly­ing a he­li­copter and a plane over the rally’s foot­print to cap­ture and de­liver the pic­tures. And that’s if you can get per­mis­sion from the rights holder.

One thing is for sure, Wil­lis is work­ing on that al­ready.

Yes, there were some missed links and the odd awk­ward si­lence, but that’s live tele­vi­sion for you. And yes, the sci­ence has been sim­pli­fied, but still it took the Cir­cuit or­gan­is­ers to join the dots and make it hap­pen. Good on them. ■

Live stream plugged Eurosport’s TV cov­er­age

Cir­cuit of Ire­land pi­o­neered the live stream­ing idea for 2016

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