I don’t know if we can pin down the exact moment 4K content became normal, we missed it, but 4K and 4K HDR content is not hard to find today. Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, HBO Max – they all have it, and in abundance. So we’re getting used to it. We are hungry for 4K and we look forward to it on our plate. This leaves many people wondering: Why is it so hard to get sports in 4K?
Three years ago I was lucky enough to fly to Florida to see behind the scenes with Fox Sports as it aired the first 4K HDR broadcast of the Super Bowl. Not only did I get to see the Fox team do their daily broadcasts live from South Beach, but I was also able to walk around Hard Rock Stadium, where I had full and unrestricted access to the stadium and all its cameras, as well as a massive joint broadcast. . I was able to walk into every production truck, saw every step of the production, from the cameras to the output sources, and every question I asked was answered by some of the best video production professionals in the business. I learned a lot while I was there.
Among the things I learned was why there are so few sports broadcasts in 4K, let alone HDR, and why they are not true 4K, but are actually upscaled to 1080p. I also learned why 4K isn’t really what we need to make the sports-watching experience at home better than it is now. But we’ll get to that. For now: Why are 4K sports so difficult?
One of the most challenging problems in getting 4K sports can be summed up as a series of bottlenecks. For one thing, 4K, which can be considered four times 1080p HD, tends to take a lot of what’s challenging about live sports and multiply it by four.
More pixels, more problems.
First off: the cameras. Live sports broadcasts require a lots camera. There were about 100 at Super Bowl LIV. Some of them were 4K, very few of them were actually 8K, and some were small enough to fit on end zone towers. But deploying more than 80 4K cameras? Man, that’s an expensive proposition.
However, the cost is only part of the challenge. Fox Sports is rich, right? They can afford it, sure. Okay, let’s assume the broadcaster can afford the cameras.
We now have about 80 4K cameras trying to send an absolutely massive amount of signals to the production trucks. If a 1080p camera had a cable the size of a python that ran thousands of feet to the production area, a 4K camera would at least double that. And we’re going to need miles and miles and miles of all that extra wire. That thing is hard. So we’re adding tons of weight to haul, that’s a lot more fuel, and we’re adding a lot more labor to install all those extra cables. All this also increases costs.
Many billions of dollars would need to be invested in upgraded equipment to make native 4K streaming a reality.
It is clear that money is already becoming a common topic, but we are just getting started.
After routing those many miles of several hundred cables to the transmission trucks, we need to connect them to something. For simplicity, we will call them consoles. These game consoles have a limited number of inputs. Let’s say the consoles have about 120 inputs. Now if we use 1080p cameras, each of those cameras only needs one input to connect. But for each 4K camera? They will have to take four tickets. This means that only 20 4K cameras will use up to 80 inputs. Look where I’m going with this. Each 4K camera represents three 1080p cameras that cannot be used. There is another bottleneck.
The broadcaster then has to process the 4K video signal, which requires much more processing power than 1080p. This means updating the servers and adding more. Also, they generate more heat, so we have to work harder to keep them cool. There is another bottleneck.
Then, assuming all of this can be done, the broadcaster still has to deliver the stream to all of its distribution partners, and not all of them can handle 4K, so they have to streamline anyway. The distribution network itself is also a bottleneck.
I think you see where I’m going with this. It is a monumental undertaking. Getting it right would require investing many billions of dollars in advanced equipment to make native 4K streaming a reality, and that would require a lot more work. What motivation do broadcasters have to do this? Perhaps they are just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts?
no, you will not No watch their sports broadcasts because they are not in 4K, and you? And even if the broadcasters want to foot the bill, they have no way of recouping their costs. It’s not like they can charge a higher premium for ads just because they improved video quality.
But also, the stations do not use their own production trucks. They rent them. So take the burden of investing billions and give it to a third party with no guarantee that you will recover your costs. Doesn’t sound likely, right?
Is native 4k even the answer?
Clearly, there’s no financial incentive for broadcasters to make 4K sports the new standard. But that’s okay because native 4K isn’t the answer to better sports at home anyway. The 1080p stuff that broadcasters are sending out now, like they will for Super Bowl LVII, already looks great. And when HDR is added, that’s when things start to look really impressive. But if broadcasters wanted sports to look even better, they would deliver the least compressed 1080p signal possible, in HDR, at 60 frames per second. Now that It would be a feast for your eyes.
If you were to watch uncompressed 1080p HDR video next to compressed 4KHDR video, the less-compressed lower-resolution signal would look orders of magnitude better than the high-resolution compressed signal, except on the largest screen size.
But delivering uncompressed 1080P video isn’t a walk in the park either. Widespread deployment of high-bandwidth signals to homes across the country, or the world, is extremely challenging when bandwidth availability varies so greatly from region to region. Not only that, but delivering an upscaled 1080p signal to 4K HDR requires a lot of hard work and considerable expense. That’s why we sometimes get it for big events like the Super Bowl, the World Cup, and the Olympics. Really big events that already have a ton of money flowing through them.
For your average Sunday night football game? Your local NBA or MLB game? Sorry no. Not soon. Not to scale anyway. I think we’ll see more and more as time goes on, but it’s not like anyone is going to open the floodgates and get this tidal wave of 4K sports. And the 4K sports we watch won’t be as easy to come by. We’ll have to get it through certain streaming apps. We may occasionally get one or two cable or satellite channels.
And let’s hope the internet doesn’t break under the stress. Because we’ve already seen that it can be very difficult for streaming services to deliver live sports reliably.
Like I said, 4K sports are tough.
For now, 4KHDR sports delivery will be limited to major events. Super Bowl LVII will be available in 4KHDR through several providers, and you can even get it in 4KDolby Vision from Comcast Xfinity.
Eventually, we’ll get to a point where bandwidth, production equipment, and workflow will align to allow for more 4K sports broadcasts, but we’ll have to be patient. For now, it is too difficult and too expensive to become the norm.