October 6, 2021
Synergy Sports now has a global network of teams, leagues and national federations using the FIBA Connected Stadium to produce entire seasons worth of games across hundreds of arenas. But this wasn’t always the case.
In the early days of Keemotion (the precursor product and underlying technology behind the FIBA Connected Stadium), the company required a major advocate that would legitimize not only this specific product, but the entire concept of using automated production.
Back in 2013, the concept of using cameras without operators felt a lot more alien than it does today. There was no comparable product already in mainstream use to set the standard and the expectations among potential users.
LNB Pro A, the top tier of men’s basketball in France foresaw enough potential in a Belgian startup (Keemotion) however to introduce the product at the league level. To increase their production capacity, reduce production costs, ensure consistency of the livestreams offered to fans and utilize benefits for coaches and player development.
Synergy’s relationship with French Basketball has grown over time to include multiple tiers of professional basketball and with benefits also being seen across youth and wheelchair levels of the sport. With French basketball having grown into one of the elite European producers of talent and with competitive teams at the continental level, this article looks back at how a true partnership between Synergy Sports and French basketball has grown dynamically over time.
In the early days, even before an actual product was established, there was just an idea.
Synergy Sports VP of Innovation and Product, Alex Bustamante discussed this early period saying “We were in contact with Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium, which had a PhD program sponsored by the European Union around computer vision.”
“There were a number of projects, but one of these became the technology that drives our products today. This was started by a professor named Christophe de Vleeschouwer and (co-founder) Damien Delannay , who was one of the researchers on the project.”
“We had a vision that we could revolutionize the industry in terms of streaming content that wasn’t being produced at the time because of the costs. We also already thought about personalized content like highlights based on user preferences. What we quickly realized was that to get started and to build our reputation, we had to start at the coaching level. That would allow us to get into arenas and then we could focus on streaming later as our technology improved.”
Prototype project APIDIS: Automatic production
The first production solution offered 720p and 20 frames per second, which in comparison to a TV production felt like a huge step down, and TV was still the major comparison point basketball leagues were using.
With low expectations and limited perception of what an automated product could deliver, the technology entered many arenas purely as a coaching product rather than a full-blown production tool. However, over time, as the team continued to refine, improve and develop the product, the production capability became obvious to both the internal team, and the early users of the product.
French Basketball Partnership
The LNB wasn’t the first customer to use the product, that was a team in the Netherlands. But LNB Pro A was the first major European league to adopt the automated cameras at the league level.
In 2015 two teams from LNB Pro A purchased the cameras with a view to its coaching functionality. The concept was to live tag video and create select playlists with coaches and players that were of strategic value to the team.
An early adopter was the Marketing Manager at one of these teams, who could immediately see the additional value of the product in terms of live-streaming games, cutting the costs associated with production and being able to offer 100% of games to fans through digital channels.
This initial market entry eventually grew into a contract for 22 arenas across France, setting the blueprint for how the product would develop and become utilized at the league level as part of the FIBA Connected Stadium.
As the team delivered training and education seminars to teams and coaches across France, many were completely unaware of the product’s strengths and its limitations at that time.
Alex Bustamante remembers “At the first presentation to the French basketball league with the coaching staff, it was clear that there was extremely limited understanding of what our product did and didn’t offer and how it could best be achieved. We had to explain what the product was and how it could be used – and that was definitely one of our biggest challenges.”
“Our observation though was that prior to introducing our products, many of games in these competitions were not being filmed and if they were it was in a very “no frills” way. Through the development of an iPad app, along with all the games being accessible immediately after they finished, we were able to deliver significant progress and benefits, despite low expectations. After getting through the initial barriers of introducing new processes, the coaches in France quickly realized what a competitive advantage they could gain through effective use of the product.”
Product Refinement and Technical Development
As the company’s largest client for an extended period, what has become the FIBA Connected Stadium product of today was largely developed and refined around the needs and asks of the French Leagues. How Synergy delivers files post-production, the development of a referee review system, improvements in color correction and the score being detected through optical character recognition were all fundamental product improvements based on its usage and the drive from French basketball.
A recurring issue experienced in French arenas during this time that became a learning for future leagues and regions was less than ideal internet connections in an arena. This led to continued refinements of how Synergy optimizes bitrates to ensure livestreams are uninterrupted and that the video is available across other devices as soon as possible.
Similarly, optimization of the servers used, improvement of video quality and increased learnings on our part of how we would often have to assist users understand the internet connection required in arenas. Over time, in the place of company-controlled broadcasts, Keemotion developed user interfaces that allow for a far greater degree of freedom and control for product users. Many of the interfaces still used today draw heavily from these early stages and experiences in French basketball.
More recently, the biggest step forward that Synergy’s experiences in France have influenced is the company’s ability to add artificial intelligence modelling based on deep learning for our computer vision framing. That allowed Synergy to make a huge leap from where we were with our traditional models to where we are now.
Benefits to French Basketball
The LNB was richly rewarded for its bravery and innovation in being one of the earliest adopters of automated technology. Initially the consistency brought to the production and availability of games around the league was a major step forward. The immediacy of video that could be used for coaching and player development purposes was also a first for the league.
Former North Carolina Tar Heel, Marcus Ginyard, who played in Pro B in 2015-2016 for Hermine de Nantes Atlantique and in the Jeep Elite Pro A during the 2019-2021 season for Limoges CSP said of the access to Synergy products: “The ability for our coaches to review and share video directly with us from our games and practices is incredibly important. Being able to instantly analyze anything that happens on-court ensures we do not miss any opportunity to get better.”
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In terms of fan-facing benefits for French basketball, the ability to have every single game available, even those not being covered “officially” with traditional TV production coincided with a huge growth in the commercial perception and value of the league. LNB Pro A, on the back of great work from their commercial team has grown the value for which their rights sold. Similarly, as the perception and popularity of the league has increased, the league has built an incredibly successful brand partnership with Jeep Elite.
While the original background of the product in France was at the top domestic level of men’s sport, the benefits are now across all levels of the game. Youth games and wheelchair basketball can all make use of the same technology and benefits to provide a holistic solution to growing the sport.
As the product grew into being where it is today as a fundamental part of the FIBA Connected Stadium, LNB Pro A and French basketball more generally has grown significantly in terms of standard of play, player development and commercial potential.
Discussing the partnership from the perspective of the LNB, AV Production and Distribution Manager Pierre-Olivier Thillay said “I’ve worked with Synergy Sports since 2015. It’s clear to see how mutually beneficial our partnership has been in that time. The Synergy team has continually improved their products and been highly adaptable to our requests and feedback. All our arenas are now full-blown FIBA Connected Stadiums, with the benefits being seen across all levels of LNB basketball. With a recently renewed partnership we hope to continue to grow together with Synergy Sports.”
Through to Today
From ad Hoc agreements with two individual teams all the way to full FIBA Connected Stadium adoption in France, the partnership has come a long way. Now with full scheduling through the FIBA app, seamless score and data information that can be automatically overlaid as graphics, better-quality production, more flexibility and a level of confidence in automated production that has never been higher.
When discussing how fundamental the partnership in France has been for the product, Alex Bustamante summarized it effectively, saying “If it wasn’t for our partnership with French basketball, we may have had to close our doors in those early days. Without France and our partners at the LNB, our technology would never have developed the way it has and may even have not continued to exist.”
From these humble beginnings came a true success story. Today, the FIBA Connected Stadium and the associated technologies that developed according to the needs of the LNB are utilized across every continent to grow the game of basketball.