Virtual reality will become ever more central to BT Sport, its Chief Operating Officer believes, as the business looks ahead to a tighter integration with EE.

Speaking to European Communications ahead of the annual IBC event this week, Jamie Hindhaugh was in reflective mood with BT Sport having just celebrated its four-year anniversary in August.

In that time the division has given Sky a bloody nose on its way to amassing over five million subscribers and a reputation for innovation – something Hindhaugh is keen to hold on to.

“When you come into a very established, very competitive market you need to build credibility,” he says.

“Perception of your brand is extremely important.

“Innovation and being seen to be leading it in sports broadcasting, taking over that mantle from competitors, is absolutely critical.

“It’s not just about the number of [subscribers] but also about how people are talking about us, how it reinforces quality of our output and the professionalism we put into it.”

VR is the latest weapon Hindhaugh and his team are using to achieve this goal.

BT Sport broadcast this year’s UEFA Champions League final in 360-degree VR, making it the biggest ever live sporting event to use the technology.

The coverage enabled viewers to choose to watch the match from eight different camera angles with separate commentary, graphics and replays.

Citing BT’s “at the heart of sport” editorial strategy, Hindhaugh says: “We took our role as a storyteller very seriously, bringing the best views and pictures to our audience, allowing them to delve deeper into what they were watching.”

He adds: “The feedback was astonishing.”

The company is now “progressing [VR] at a rapid rate” as it looks to keep ahead of rivals.

Hindhaugh says BT will look at where to use VR “on a case-by-case basis”, but cites boxing and rugby as two sports that are expected to benefit.

“You need to identify where it will add real value to your coverage,” he explains.

“You have to remember...innovation isn’t just doing something because you can, it has to be driven by the editorial value and the value to the audience.”

As such, the COO says driving engagement with viewers is one of BT Sport’s key challenges.

The company is looking carefully how best to engage in a “two-way conversation”, and is leaning heavily on Twitter to get fans to interact with shows like BT Sport Score.

It is also using social media companies as a broadcast platform to showcase its programmes.

Last month, it announced plans to show “a regular taster” of its Rugby Tonight show for free on Facebook and Twitter.

Another tool is the IP-based network that delivers the huge variety of sport BT Sport offers.

Hindhaugh says the ability to track what people tune into when they change channel is “extremely valuable”.

Of course, technology can only get you so far.

BT continues to spend eye-watering sums on content rights – the operator spent €1.2 billion in March to secure exclusive rights to all UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League football matches for three years from 2018 – to ensure it delivers what its subscribers now expect.

With the costs on an upward trajectory that seems to have no end in sight, the worry is that there will come a time when BT cannot afford to get what it wants.

“Exclusive content is critical but so is the personality we’ve developed, the presentation style, the tone that we have – which we believe is a bit younger and inclusive,” Hindhaugh says.

Allied to the latest tech, the COO claims this “makes you feel and look younger because you’re seen to be constantly innovating”.

He adds: “That combination differentiates us, but it’s very hard to differentiate if you don’t have the content.”

The stakes were upped this summer when Amazon outbid Sky to acquire ATP tennis rights for its Prime Video service.

Hindhaugh is circumspect when asked to give his thoughts on this. “The sports market has always been competitive,” he says.

“Sport drives engagement so I don’t see any change there.”

Where he does see change is in the upcoming integration of BT and mobile arm EE.

The group’s Consumer business unit, under which BT Sport falls, is now headed by EE Chief Executive Marc Allera.

The brands continue to trade separately for the moment but tighter integration is only a matter of time.

Hindhaugh views mobile as another distribution platform.

“It can only mean opportunity,” he says.

“The market is converging so it’s got to be good news.”

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