ShortList.com's David Cornish goes behind the scenes of BT Sport's FA Cup coverage
On the morning of 30 May 2015, FA Cup final day, Tottenham Hotspur are threatening to spoil Arsenal's big moment. Or BT Sports', at any rate.
A post-season friendly against Sydney FC is crawling its way toward a conclusion on BT Sport 1, Harry Kane having scored with a delightful finish in the 43rd minute. Should Sydney FC score, they'll force friendly into an unusual extra time, and cause an unimaginable headache for Grant Best, BT Sport's executive director of programming and creative.
"If that game goes to extra time... it gets interesting for us," he tells me in the basement of Wembley's car park, home of the decidedly unglamorous base of BT Sport's FA Cup operations. Seven gleaming broadcasting trucks fill the vast underground space, filled with teams of graphics tweakers and production staff, pouring over VT footage and feeds from the ground's 35 cameras. Behind us, amidst a forest of cables and concrete, the BT Sport team are given one final briefing.
The day marks more than the culmination of BT Sport's FA Cup coverage. Some 11.6 miles south of Wembley, an equally expansive broadcast operation is looking after the thunderous conclusion of the Aviva Rugby Premiership, with Bath vs Saracens kicking off at Twickenham at 14:30.
If everything goes according to schedule, Tottenham's friendly on BT Sport 1 will segue seamlessly into an FA Cup preview piece, before breathlessly switching to Twickenham. At the conclusion of that match, subscribers will be beamed from one final to another at 5pm, offering a short ad break in which to grab another cold beer.
The mood in the Wembley basement is one of quiet productivity, contrasting with the frenzy of the sea of fans amassing outside the stadium. Stephen Cook, head of live football at BT Sport, and his team are polishing off VT packages highlighting the potential battle of the day – Sanchez (a prediction that would come to fruition in sublime style in the 50th minute) vs Grealish – and final words from the team’s changing rooms.
At this moment, a Sydney FC equaliser would shorten the length of a lunchtime pre-game piece from Wembley, rendering the freshly made-up faces and coiffed hair of the 11-strong team of punditry talent momentarily useless, with coverage skipping straight from the friendly to the pitch of Twickenham in a brutal act of continuity.
Mercifully, Sydney don't have a goal in them. The Arsenal vs Villa preview rolls and coverage shifts to Twickenham. Best’s next fear rears its head.
"Now, the rugby final could go to extra time and kicks, which again will cut into the FA Cup programme schedule," he explains. "It's the kind of gamble you have to make with a day like today. But it's key to what we're doing here. Our focus is to be at ‘The heart of sport’, and it's this sort of schedule allows us to demonstrate that."
That's not the only roll of the proverbial dice BT Sport is making. The ever-trending Robbie Savage and Michael Owen will join Darren Fletcher (not that Darren Fletcher) in three-way commentary team – something rarely attempted in UK football coverage, indicative of the channel’s desire to innovate, and a nod to the approach to big game coverage set down by the likes of America's ESPN and FOX.
"Our job over the next ten years is to get people to turn over to us," explains Best. "We want to be a channel for the fans, understanding what they're looking for and responding to that." Since their launch in 2013, BT Sport has looked to take on the likes of Sky Sports and the BBC - who are acting as the day's host broadcaster, offering BT Sport a direct feed of their camera selection - in offering a package of sport that generates conversation, pitting the views of formidable pundits against each other educating viewers without patronising them in the process.
"Sky Sports raised the bar in covering weekly events," says Best, who worked at the channel for some 16 years. "We're working hard to raise it further."
In addition to 'grand spectacles' like today's line up, BT Sport is investing heavily in expanding its coverage for the 2015-2016 football season, adding the Champions League to its growing catalogue. There's also been marked growth in the broadcaster's use of social media, sending out short-form content in an effort to draw people in to the live broadcast's major talking points.
As 5pm ticks around, the operation moves into its next phase. While the BBC broadcasts from its box, BT Sport assume their position on the turf of Wembley itself, a symbolic land grab from the channel, thrusting its presenters into the cauldron of dancers, mascots and restless substitutes.
BT Sport’s average in-match audience figure of 186,000 - peaking at 238,000 – was lower than the BBC’s. But there's a long legacy of British viewers choosing the BBC over other channels when the option is presented and BT Sport’s FA Cup audience is growing (in match audience up 41% year on year). The main aim of the day is to demonstrate the calibre of the channel’s coverage, the value added over the likes of the BBC from a subscription service – as well as a nudge toward the quality of the imminent arrival of the UEFA Champions League on next season’s billing.
As final preparations are being made, word comes in that Saracens have surprised Bath in a 28 - 16 victory. "We can breathe easy now," beams Best.
From here on out, it's a normal day in the office: while the game holds untold significance for the fans filing into the 90,000-ish seats of Wembley, for the broadcasters functioning in the underground car park, this is just another 90 minutes of sporting story to share with the viewers at home.
The FA Cup is part of a BT Sport football line-up that also includes 38 Barclays Premier League matches per season, plus coverage of France’s Ligue 1, Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga all exclusively live
The assorted members of BT Sport gather a few hours before kick off to run through the schedule for the live broadcast
Production teams tweak VT packages before the broadcast begins
Running the show
Stephen Cook, head of live football, BT Sport and Dylan Jane, senior producer, football Sunset & Vine for BT Sport, talk through the running order for the day
The BT Sport pundits run through their pre-game coverage
Commentator Darren Fletcher is joined by Michael Owen and Robbie Savage - a first for BT Sport's FA Cup coverage
A day out
Travelling Villa fans arrived in high spirits, buoyant on their success against Liverpool in the semi final. If the match were won on exuberance, Villa's fans would have clinched it.
Nerves? What nerves...
In contrast, Arsenal's support arrives at Wembley in a subdued, nervous mood. It's only when the teams make their way onto the pitch that the Gunners' fans begin to lend some volume to proceedings.
The pre-match work complete, BT Sport's talent team shuffle off the Wembley pitch with more than a hint of reluctance.
Having completed a 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa, Arsenal attracted every smartphone in the stadium to collect their prize
A busy gantry
ShortList.com's David Cornish momentarily adds himself to the BT Sport commentary line up, along with executive director of programming and creative Grant Best.