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Going behind the screens: 48 hours inside Deltatre

Few will ever truly know the full extent of Deltatre's global operation. SportsPro ventured inside the digital and data technology company’s Turin and London offices to discover an internal workflow built upon a fluent fusion of man and machine.

by Michael Long and Sam Carp
Going behind the screens: 48 hours inside Deltatre

A nondescript building in central Turin is the last place one might expect to find a company at the frontline of sports technology and innovation. But then Deltatre has never been in the business of courting the limelight.

Known within the industry as a technological heavy-lifter, the Italian firm has quietly built its reputation over three decades as a back-end service provider, one that specialises in handling important yet unglamorous tasks like video streaming, content management, data collection, and on-site information services. So when SportsPro steps inside the company’s functional, no-frills headquarters one evening in mid-September, the underwhelming first impression is, perhaps, to be expected.

Head downstairs, however, and it soon becomes clear this is no humdrum organisation. On the basement floor, sunk beneath the company’s unsexier administrative departments, the walls of a narrow, windowless room are lined with dozens of TV monitors. On the screens, soccer players are warming up for the evening’s Uefa Champions League fixtures, and there’s a palpable sense of anticipation in the air. In what is a kind of hi-tech sports bar meets Bloomberg trading floor, groups of employees huddle over desktop computers on circular work stations, casually chatting amongst themselves, pointing intermittently at screens displaying unrecognisable software.

It is nearing 7pm in this inner sanctum and the evening shift is just beginning. Matchday one in the group stage of the Champions League, Europe’s elite continental club soccer competition, represents a busy night’s work for Deltatre, whose services for Uefa run the full gamut of its expertise. In keeping with its mantra of managing the entire digital supply chain ‘from field to fan’, the company handles everything from the production of broadcast graphics to data provision and web content management. And it is here, inside its longtime operations centre (OPC), that much of its workflow comes to life.

 Deltatre's Turin-based operations centre in the midst of a busy Champions League night

Rory McIlroy is on the fourth hole at Wentworth and his drive is bang in the middle of the fairway. The Northern Irish golfer has made a blistering start to the opening round of the European Tour’s 2019 BMW PGA Championship and has a chance to make it to three under par after five holes.

Meanwhile, on the ground floor of Deltatre’s Wimbledon offices, in what can best be described as a box room, a lone eagle-eyed editor is keeping tabs across a multi-screen set-up of live feeds that are being distributed from the tournament. He has been here since 8am this morning. It might not sound like the most inspiring of settings, but it is one from which a crucial role is played.

SportsPro is just receiving the lowdown on how Deltatre supports the European Tour’s digital output when McIlroy rolls in his putt to make a stunning eagle, sparking the aforementioned editor into action. Within seconds, the footage has been clipped into a bite-sized piece of video content, ripe for sharing across the golf circuit’s social media accounts, as well as its owned and operated platforms, before it is seen anywhere else.

“That just allows them to be the first to market,” Ant Hayward, the senior operations manager at Deltatre’s London office, points out. “People will then go to them instead of going to Sky, or the Huffington Post, or whatever.”

Indeed, it is a once time-consuming process made simple by Deltatre’s employment of Forbidden Technologies’ Blackbird, a cloud-based video platform which enables users to rapidly cut down short-form highlights and clips even while working remotely. An online chat room built into the service also allows whoever is monitoring the action from Deltatre’s offices to remain in constant conversation with the social media team on site for the European Tour, who will eventually wave through what gets published on their website, social media platforms and other marketing channels.

Video clipping might be one of the more routine services Deltatre provides, but simplifying the operator experience for its clients is at the heart of what the company has set out to do. As one employee describes it, this “collaborative cloud environment” has eliminated what was previously a significant cost, whereby the European Tour would have to fly editors around the world for each of its tournaments.

Now, there is a tool at the organisation’s disposal that is operationally straightforward to use, does not require code, and enables it to focus on efficiently getting stories out to market quickly and in creative ways.

Back in Turin, the evening’s two early Champions League fixtures kick off at 6.55pm sharp. Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur are in Athens to take on Greek giants Olympiacos, while Turkish club Galatasaray have travelled to Belgium for a clash with Club Brugge. Both matches are being beamed directly into Deltatre’s OPC, where a handful of staff are now settling into the action.

Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane scores a penalty during a Uefa Champions League match against Greek side Olympiacos

By the time the second round of matches gets underway at 9pm local time - there are six taking place on this particular night - virtually every computer in the room is manned. Dozens of dialled-in staff monitor the live broadcast feeds with air traffic controller-like concentration. The atmosphere is calm yet spiced with a note of tension. Everybody here - from the live operations manager to the data trackers - has a specific job to do, and now it’s down to business.

At the far end of the room, a small team is tasked with monitoring the various feeds and content available on Uefa’s official website. At an adjacent work station, another team builds bespoke on-screen graphics for rights-holding broadcasters, in keeping with Uefa’s branding guidelines. These are then uploaded into a central pipeline for editors and producers to remotely access as and when they choose.

For each Champions League fixture, a total of seven people are assigned to capture data - four at the match venue, and three here in Turin. Using a Playstation-style controller, a timekeeper at the OPC logs data points such as touches, whistles, dribbles and tackles - essentially playing a real-life video game in reverse. Meanwhile a speaker operator analyses the world feed and dictates events, which are then automatically logged by Deltatre’s Matrics speech recognition software.

To minimise errors, data gathered live at the venue is checked in real time by two dedicated quality controllers - one for major moments in the match, such as goals, shots and penalties, the other for minor plays and player positions. Together, they scan and skip back and forth through tape-delayed feeds of the broadcast, resolving any inaccuracies and enriching the collected data with additional attributes like throw-ins and clearances.

Using Playstation-style controllers, Deltatre timekeepers gather data points such as touches, whistles, dribbles and tackles

Elsewhere, inside the match venue, a system comprising three cameras tracks the positioning of every player on the field in real-time, producing data points such as the distance covered by the teams and each individual. This information is then fed through to the OPC before being combined with the rest of the collected data to build up a complete statistical picture of the match.

Throughout every stage of the workflow, says Marcello Giordano, the night’s live operations manager, attention to detail is paramount. Every care is taken to ensure accurate and precise tracking, but the system of collection is not completely failsafe. Gathered data is painstakingly verified and verified again. A dramatically named ‘panic button’, built into the data gathering software, signals to a supervisor whenever an error is made or if something is unclear.

Peering over their shoulders, it is clear the job of the data team requires supreme skill and focus. As well as knowing how to comfortably operate the software, each of the employees - mostly young men, many of whom appear fresh out of university - must possess an in-depth knowledge of the game. An ability to quickly recognise every player on the field is vital, as is an instinctive eye for the sport’s subtle nuances.

In fact, subjectivity is all part of the data gathering process. While everything is run through computers, human judgement is required to determine what constitutes, say, a ‘dangerous attack’ or other more dubious moments in play, such as deflected shots and loose touches that become completed passes. Discrepancies invariably arise, but mastering this constant dance between man and machine is Deltatre’s USP.

It is a dance rehearsed nightly within the OPC, not least in the dimly lit server room, which is housed on the opposite side of a glass partition directly behind the data teams. Inside, an IT technician diligently tends to rows of units stacked with all manner of equipment: cables, servers, mixers, encoders, satellite receivers. Multi-coloured lights blink as the fans of a cooling system whirr continuously, circulating air to keep the all-important tech stack performing optimally. This is the epicentre of the whole operation, powering everything from the company’s internal infrastructure to remote feeds from the live events it covers. As one member of staff puts it, this is “the place where the magic happens”.

Put another way, this is the technological heartbeat of Deltatre, whose role in the live event is like that of a good referee: the less it is noticed, the better it is doing its job. As such, everything is backed up and stored in the cloud. Round-the-clock power to the servers is guaranteed; were the mains supply to fail for any reason, a generator positioned on the building’s roof would kick in to provide back-up energy. The result is that in the event of a major fault, key functions like data collection and the creation of broadcast graphics can continue unaffected, minimising any impact on the client’s output.

“It’s a business continuity plan,” says Livio Babando, a company vice president who heads up its Live division. In reality, only a catastrophic occurrence could bring the operation to a halt. “A fire here,” he smiles wryly, “would be not so good.”

Turin's Officine Grandi Riparazioni, or OGR, is a creative hub for tech startups and ‘hot-desking’ entrepreneurs

It would be tempting to assume that mid-afternoon on a weekday might be a period of downtime for a company that works across sport, but even then Deltatre has staff monitoring three live events from its London base.

As McIlroy trudges off the last at Wentworth, Belgian tennis player David Goffin remains locked in battle against Spain’s Pablo Carreño Busta in the round of 16 at the Moselle Open. That match is one of two currently being live streamed on Deltatre-powered ATP Tennis TV, which is also showing coverage of the St Petersburg Open from Russia.

According to Hayward, it is a relatively quiet day for the ATP’s dedicated over-the-top (OTT) streaming platform, which during bigger events, such as the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, will have channels delivering concurrent live feeds from several different courts at the same venue. There will be other occasions, he adds, when the service has to deliver streams from events happening across different continents.

For this particular operation, though, much of the hard work is done the night before, when Deltatre receives the following day’s order of play from the tournament organisers. Using its Diva video player, each match is then created in the back-end as a single event with a specific time stamp and is allocated a channel on Tennis TV in preparation for the platform’s built-in, multi-court live coverage.

The ATP, meanwhile, assigns a code to each match, which it then shares with Deltatre. Using that code, the tennis body feeds through information related to a specific tie once it has got underway. Deltatre’s Diva player is then able to take and visualise that data on Tennis TV’s front-end in the form of real-time graphics, highlighting key stats such as the number of aces, forehand winners and unforced errors.

“It’s a wonderful way of making it easy for fans to look at sport in a way they want to look at it,” says Adam Nightingale, who recently joined Deltatre from Accedo as senior vice president of commercial. “Equally, if you want to watch a live stream or a linear stream and lean back and not be interrupted by yourself then you can. It’s a very good way of increasing that level of engagement.”

Diva, though, is about more than just visualising data. The platform, which Deltatre also supplies for the BT Sport app, can be customised to provide different interactive features according to client demand. This includes giving viewers information around important moments in a game using interactive overlays and timeline navigation, as well as to watch action replays from a variety of camera angles.

Our goal is to make the experience every bit as good – or potentially better - as being in a live sports stadium

Adam Nightingale, Deltatre senior vice president of commercial

“From an engagement point of view,” Nightingale adds, “our goal is to make the experience of watching any kind of entertainment every bit as good – or potentially better - as being in a live sports stadium, as watching something for real first-hand.

“Even more important than the number of people watching the sport are how engaged they are. Sports don’t want people idly sitting back, having a beer and nodding off in front of a game; they want people who are participating. What the products we built give you is that ability to participate, by flipping camera angles, by digging up background data and by filling the gaps with interviews and other content as well.”

Deltatre’s acquisition of Massive Interactive, the user experience specialist it purchased for a reported US$127 million in late 2018, brought another layer to the company’s already versatile offering, as well as making it the largest independent OTT solution provider in the world, with a reported valuation of as much as US$1 billion.

Based in central London, Massive has made a name for itself by making something incredibly intricate seem straightforward - much like Deltatre. Indeed, as Dominic de Lorenzo, senior vice president of products for what is now Deltatre’s OTT division, takes SportsPro through the company’s Axis user experience management console, he may as well be reciting the alphabet.

Axis underpins, he says, the presentation of customer-facing, multi-platform OTT apps for sports and entertainment entities, including the likes of BBC Worldwide, Bell Media and PCCW. More recently, it was behind the overhaul of the user interface design for the WWE Network. In a nutshell, the platform utilises an easy-to-use drag and drop interface that allows editors to adjust the presentation of their apps and OTT services in real time, all without writing a line of code. It can also be used to target experiences to specific groups within an audience, so the design, navigation and feature-set for, say, a soccer supporter is different to that of a rugby fan.

Deltatre's Axis platform was behind the recent overhaul of WWE Network's user interface design

“At the heart of it was how you let people control, make changes and create a dynamic experience once in market,” De Lorenzo explains. “We took a holistic view as an experience-led company to make sure that the operator experience was treated with the same respect as the end user experience.”

De Lorenzo adds that his team has applied that same philosophy to Mtribes, a new product launching in the first quarter of 2020. Different from Axis, Mtribes has been designed for clients who already have OTT apps, but who want to be able to respond to how certain audiences are interacting with features that exist within those platforms, as well as monitoring what device they’re using and which content they prefer to consume.

A plethora of data and metrics will allow editors to target specific groups - or tribes, as De Lorenzo aptly describes them - and adjust the user interface on the fly. As a result, different sets of fans will be confronted with a different presentation within the same app, creating highly personalised experiences.

“In a really simplistic way, it’s customers who need apps and customers who have apps – if you distil it down that’s really what it is," says De Lorenzo, explaining the difference between Axis and Mtribes. "If customers have a broken customer experience right now, personalisation is only going to get them so far. If you’re not providing a certain high level quality of experience, you’re not going to keep customers engaged anyway.

“It’s not just apps sometimes, it’s also all the orchestration of data and all the vendors and the pieces behind it. Axis does all of that – it’s like a reset - whereas Mtribes is a drop-in and iterate ecosystem.” 

Deltatre relocated its innovation and product development teams to the OGR earlier this year

For years a disused relic of the city’s industrial past, the Officine Grandi Riparazioni, or OGR, now stands proud as an emblem of contemporary Turin. Located in a converted 19th Century warehouse previously used for train repairs, the newly opened co-working and entertainment facility has been reimagined as an innovation campus; a creative hub where tech startups and ‘hot-desking’ entrepreneurs rub shoulders with the likes of Facebook and Intesa, a digital services firm owned by IBM.

All polished concrete floors and glass-enclosed meeting rooms, the revitalised OGR is intended to signify a more open-minded, forward-thinking Turin. But it is also now a key part of Deltatre’s future, too. The company moved into the campus upon its opening in July, taking occupancy of several office spaces to house its innovation and product development teams.

“We have to keep ourselves young,” Giampiero Rinaudo (left), Deltatre’s co-founder and chief executive, tells SportsPro, surveying the OGR from inside one of the meeting rooms. “It’s a good way also for me to keep myself young.”

Though its administrative headquarters remain across town, the move into OGR comes at an important time in the history of Deltatre, which was founded back in 1987 and has grown to comprise 19 offices and 1,000 employees around the world. Following its takeover by the US-based investment company Bruin Sports Capital in 2016, and subsequently its own acquisition of Massive last year, the relocation is the latest sign that the fast-growing company is entering its next stage of evolution.

“You have to act as if you are a startup,” says Rinaudo. “If you just do the things that have been done until now, there would have been no change for 25 years. But we’ve changed a lot and we will change a lot now.”

Operationally speaking, the integration of Massive, which has historically specialised in entertainment, brought immediate scale and new UX capabilities into the Deltatre fold, along with a greater presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet the company’s recent organisational restructuring, including the introduction of three product-focused business units and the creation of a dedicated in-house innovation team, has transformed it from the inside out.

Led by group head of innovation Pietro Marini (right), the four-man innovation team works across each of Deltatre’s verticals, spanning digital, OTT, and live event operations. Its primary focus is product research and development, specifically in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), as well as seeking operational efficiencies and facilitating ideas-sharing across the business.

“We try to gather feedback regarding how things work within the company to identify potential pain points and try to act on these,” says Marini. “We hope to be able to give the company the necessary means to innovate and there’s a certain level of proactivity required in being able to research matters that are not only related to the business.”

This company-wide push to innovate is what inspired the redevelopment of Forge, Deltatre’s proprietary content management system (CMS), which was designed specifically for sport. Rebuilt in 2015 and rolled out the following year, the platform is utilised by many of the largest sports leagues, federations and broadcasters around the world, facilitating the publication of over 50,000 pieces of content per month and reaching a combined 150 million daily users in every country worldwide.

Fully customisable in multiple languages, the Forge platform is built to accommodate each client’s preferred tools and solutions, and is intended to remove much of the legwork for content editors. Images, for example, are fed through to the back end from photographic agencies automatically, as are videos published on platforms like YouTube and Dailymotion, and can be edited within the CMS easily.

Forge also incorporates myriad “extensibility points”, explains Jonathan Schecter, the company’s vice president of digital products, enabling editors to create and manage all manner of content - from images, video and written word to team depth charts, live blogs and event calendars - and distribute it to all platforms. A further benefit of the product is its flexibility: designed to handle events as large as the Olympic Games or Fifa World Cup, it is scalable enough to cope with huge volumes of traffic.

Every department must show innovation, and people are measured on the innovation that they bring. That’s important. You have to think about what’s next

Giampiero Rinaudo, Deltatre co-founder and chief executive

That was certainly part of the appeal for Major League Baseball (MLB), which now uses Forge to power its global network of nearly 300 digital destinations. Deltatre quietly replaced BAMTech as the league’s digital partner last year, and it has already seen impressive results: on Opening Day in April, for example, MLB’s platforms drew 9.5 million sessions, a nine per cent increase on 2018.

“To be able to serve the most advanced sports entity in this space with a product, I’m proud of it - and they’re happy and we are happy,” says Rinaudo, speaking just days after the MLB deal was formally made public. “Our expansion in the United States has worked well because a couple of years ago, before the Bruin acquisition, we were already working with NBC but we weren’t really based there.

“In three years, two major properties [Deltatre also powers the National Football League (NFL) Game Pass streaming service globally] are now having very crucial services supplied by us - that’s an achievement.”

Rinaudo adds that such success has not happened by chance. By putting innovation at the heart of everything it does, he says, the company is out to reassert its position as a leader in digital sports and OTT content delivery.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that Carlo De Marchis, the company’s long-time chief product officer and a familiar presence at industry conferences, recently assigned himself the role of group chief evangelist. The charismatic Italian’s job will be to spread the Deltatre message while advising clients on digital strategy, helping them to navigate the evolving OTT space in light of changing consumption patterns and the emergence of new technologies.

But it is the formation of Marini’s team that most excites Rinaudo, who says the very notion of innovation comes down to being “brave enough to throw away what is not working anymore”, and to accept that truly groundbreaking work cannot happen overnight.

“One of the responsibilities of Pietro is also to instil innovation behaviour on all the company,” he continues. “Every department must show innovation, and people are measured on the innovation that they bring. That’s important. You have to think about what’s next.” 

This feature first appeared in issue 107 of SportsPro magazine, subscribe here.