Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Regatta brings back live TV coverage

TRADITION is at the centre of Henley Royal Regatta. From blazers to badges and Pimm’s on the

TRADITION is at the centre of Henley Royal Regatta. From blazers to badges and Pimm’s on the riverbank, not much appears to have changed in the event’s 177-year history.

Until last year the lack of live TV coverage was also on that list. Despite being the highlight of the rowing calendar, the regatta had not been televised since 1968.

In March 2015, organisers announced that coverage would return, with live streaming via the regatta website and YouTube along with a daily highlights show. 

Regatta chairman Sir Steve Redgrave says that, despite having to overcome some initial opposition to the idea from members, the broadcasting of last year’s event was a “huge” success.

There were 10 cameras along the 2,112m course which covered more than 250 races. Finals day was also available via the red button and the BBC Sport website. The coverage was produced by award-winning production company Sunset + Vine with Michael Cole, who worked on the 2012 Olympic Regatta, as editorial director. 

It was the first time the annual five-day event had been shown live in almost 50 years. There has not been a broadcast of any kind since 1976, when the BBC’s Man Alive programme followed several crews competing at the regatta. Sir Steve says the topic of televising the regatta had been discussed for decades but it was only comparatively recently that organisers felt confident of going ahead with it.

He says: “In the chairman’s cupboard at regatta HQ there are two folders about broadcasting. We have been talking about this since the Fifties and there have been bits of TV coverage.

“The BBC covered it for two years until Prince Charles’s investiture in 1969. The BBC back then wasn’t what it is now so instead of a third year at Henley they whisked the cameras down for the ceremony in Wales and they never came back.

“I’ve been on the regatta committee for 16 years and now and again broadcasting has been put on the table. We always found that it was too expensive to cover it in the way we wanted to.

“Coming to the end of Mike Sweeney’s chairmanship it was put on the agenda again. Because of the changes in technology we thought this time we were able to put a good programme together, although at a fair amount of cost. We believed we could do it and it turned out to be a huge hit.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the idea of live coverage wasn’t popular with everyone. poll of regatta members showed the majority were opposed to the idea.

However, following the resounding success of last year, there is now almost universal backing. Sir Steve says: “I’ve had letters from people around the world who have been able to follow the crews. One lady who started rowing at college in America said her grandmother had never seen her row but watched her race at Henley last year.

“We thought it would be more popular with the people who can’t make it here but the members who come along loved it as well.

“We did a survey after the regatta and 94 per cent of respondents said they loved the coverage and wanted it to be an ongoing part of the regatta. That’s compared with the survey before which said no. A lot of people have told me they’ve eaten humble pie and the coverage has enhanced their enjoyment of the regatta.”

So what about the challenge of exactly how to film a race stretching over two kilometres as well as reaching audiences around the globe?

The cameras had to be dotted along the course and some of the best images came from a drone which flew over the water.

Sir Steve says: “Something like the snooker world championship can be covered with three cameras but with rowing that would never work. We had a number of cameras last year, each with a cameraman and equipment. That comes at a cost.

“It can be difficult to get camera shots, it needs to be dynamic and the drone was the crème de la crème for that. The shots we got from the drone had never been seen before and it was a game-changer.

“We also scheduled rowers from Australia and New Zealand in the morning and Americans in the afternoon so they could be watched in those countries. It was a success at home and abroad.”

Such was the success of the cameras that the production and broadcast of the regatta made the shortlist in the cutting edge sport award category of the BT Sport Industry Awards in April.

The cameras will return for this year’s regatta and Sir Steve believes the format needs only minor polishing.

He says: “The decision was worth it and the regatta last year was very successful financially so we are able to carry on with the same model.

“We will have broadcasting again this year and not a lot will change from last time, although there are things we’ve learned.

“We think we can improve coverage without spending any more money. Our members who pay their subs love being part of it as well so it’s a win-win situation for members and competitors.”

Sir Steve, who himself competed at the regatta for more than 20 years, says he understands the importance of history at the event but that rowing has moved on to an elite level and the regatta needs to go forward too.

The five-times Olympic champion says: “Those of us involved with organising the regatta love tradition and history but it is about the here and now.

“The athletes are at the top of their game domestically and internationally and they want it to be modernised.

“Henley is seen as the most colourful and charismatic event to compete at. It’s the nearest thing in the rowing world to competing in a stadium full of fans because of the atmosphere and noise from start to finish.

“At other regattas you are rowing in near-silence past a grandstand with a few hundred people.

“At Henley there are thousands and it gives the athletes a very special feeling.”

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