Going live for the long-haul

In-flight entertainment has changed dramatically over the past few years. Now, in a new development, passengers flying long-haul on Emirates and 11 other international airlines will enjoy this year's Olympic Games and other sporting events live in mid-air for the first time

Passengers flying with Emirates and 11 other international airlines will be able to watch this summer’s Olympic Games live in mid-air for the first time, as well as enjoying the Euro 2016 football championships and a host of other top sporting action as they cruise above vast oceans and the most remote parts of the world.

Emirates was among the first airlines to offer Sport 24, the pioneering live-to-aircraft sports TV channel, to passengers on selected routes.

Described by Richard Wise, boss of IMG Media, as ‘the best sports channel in the world,’ Sport 24 delivers a menu of English Premier League and Bundesliga soccer, UEFA Champions League, the NFL and NBA, all the golf majors and tennis Slams and Formula One to airline passengers.

Wise’s claim is no exaggeration. Sports TV rights are usually sold country-by-country and, because of fierce competition between national broadcasters, few if any are able to buy-up all of the top events. But Sport 24’s unique positioning as a worldwide supplier to an audience above the clouds means it has been able to acquire the cream of world sports properties and compile a programming roster which, according to them, means ‘any time is prime time.’

The service uses Panasonic Avionics technology and a global satellite network to seamlessly deliver a broadband pipe to aircraft in any location. Aircraft are fitted with a dome containing the necessary antennae and the system is hard-wired throughout the aircraft.

Sport 24 is delivered from IMG’s state-of-the-art facilities at Stockley Park in West London, a complex which has become the epicentre of international sports media.

The business model is based on licence fees paid by the airlines and commercial partnerships, which now feature a clutch of major international brands including Hyundai, Rolex and software company Barracuda.

In an age when digital technology allows fans to access sport more or less whenever and wherever they want, aircraft had become the final frontier with the instruction to fasten safety belts in preparation for take-off signalling the onset of withdrawal symptoms.

“Back at the very beginning when we started discussing separating in-flight rights from TV rights people thought we mad,” Richard Wise said. “That’s because we were thinking ahead of the technology curve, but now the technology has caught up.”

Naturally, it is the blockbuster global events which have created the biggest impact among passengers and social media monitoring suggests that the availability of live sport makes the often tedious business of air travel a rather more pleasant experience.

Last year, Sport 24 added the NBA and Champions League to its schedule and the issue increasingly facing programmers is how to keep all the people happy as much of the time as possible.

“The fact is that there are times, particularly over weekends, when there is just so much great sport being played around the world that, with a single channel, we are having to make tough choices about what to show.”

The result is an on-going discussion about the potential of introducing a new channel, which will enable more sport to be delivered and provide viewers with greater choice.

And there are likely further developments in the years ahead.

“As the sector matures we think that our customers, the airlines will want greater customisation of content.  That may be regional to reflect the different sporting appetites in, for examples, North Africa and Asia. But right now there are certain restrictions in terms of bandwidth and cost,” Wise said.

“The airline business is very discerning and they are always looking for a premium product and service and that’s why we are focused on enhancing the channel wherever we can.”