Sportsnet Pushes 4K Broadcasts With Baseball Games in Ultra HD

Courtesy of Rogers Media

In a North American TV tech first, all 81 Toronto Blue Jays regular season games will air in super-sharp 4K.

When the New York Yankees visited the Toronto Blue Jays Wednesday night, the Major League Baseball game marked the next TV tech frontier for your living room.

Canadian TV sports channel Sportsnet has positioned 12 Sony 4K cameras throughout Rogers Center arena in Toronto to broadcast the entire Blue Jays home regular season, or 81 games, in an ultra-crisp format, four times the pixel count of HD. "It's a lot about the greens and the grass and the outdoors," said Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet & NHL at Rogers Media.

His company, Canada's largest cable and mobile service provider, is pitching 4K to subscribers as going beyond HD TV to near lifelike picture quality for baseball games. And with its Blue Jays telecasts on 4K ultra HD TV sets, Rogers has also thrown down the gauntlet to U.S. cable and satellite TV players, many of which have plans for 4K broadcasts, but are only now starting to roll them out.

AT&T/DirecTV last week aired the Masters golf tournament at Augusta, Georgia on DirecTV’s dedicated 4K channel. But Rogers is first in North America to create and deliver an entire season of 4K sports broadcasts, and not just one-off events.

To do that, Dome Productions, a company Rogers co-owns, built dedicated mobile TV production trucks now parked inside Rogers Center. The master control facility directs the 12 4K camera setup to follow a 100-miles-per-hour fastball and hits into play, along with the commentators in the booth.

During Wednesday night's game, 4K cameras captured the batter's grip with an extreme close-up, or a wide shot showed the batter, catcher and umpire in action at home plate.

At a resolution of 3840 by 2160 pixels, the cinematic viewing experience Rogers touts for its 4K broadcast is not far off the pixel resolution projected in a cinema. "Being able to shoot with this clarity and focus allows us to get not only sharper, but a lot tighter, so you can see the emotion, you can see the sweat on the brow and the twinkle in a player's eye," said Rob Corte, vp live events at Sportsnet, of the 4K broadcasts.

For super-sharpness, one of two 4K cameras for super-slow-motion replays can capture the rotation of a ball when, for example, Blue Jays knuckle-ball pitcher R.A. Dickey is on the mound. "You get to see the seams when the ball is released from the pitcher's hand and headed to home plate," Corte said.

Some of the graphics included in the Blue Jays telecasts are up-converted from HD, but Sportsnet is otherwise delivering a pure 4K broadcast from the Rogers Center, and a down-converted HD signal. That enables two transmission paths out of the arena to Rogers, which distributes the HD and 4K signals to its own cable customers and those of rival distributors also carrying Sportsnet.

As Rogers becomes a major North American player in sports broadcasting, 4K TV sets for are still in short supply in Canada after the digital platform only recently made a splash at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Rogers predicts nearly one-third of Canadian households will own a 4K TV by 2019.

To gear up for that future, Rogers is set to broadcast this year over 500 hours of live TV sports, movies and shows in 4K. To see all the baseball action, Canadians need a new NextBox 4K set top box and a cable TV package. 

Rogers has two dedicated 4K Sportsnet channels, channels 997 and 998, and other entertainment like spectacular nature videos on channel 999, to allow 4K action around the clock. Rogers partnered with Netflix to directly connect its own Canadian network to Netflix servers, allowing faster start-up times and 4K streaming of dramas like House of Cards.

Rogers' Scott Moore insists his company's long-standing fiber-optic network allows more than enough Internet bandwidth for a host of 4K channels to be streamed, beyond live broadcasts. "We're able to deliver multiple 4K channels, so you can watch a Netflix movie in one room and a Blue Jays game in another. Our competitors can't do that," he said.

And with Rogers Media-parent Rogers Communications being the country's largest Internet service provider, it's easier for existing broadband and cable TV subscribers to tap a super-fast broadband speed. Here it's no surprise Rogers is following BT Sports in the U.K. into 4K sports broadcasting, as both are major telecom players.

"I can see all sports eventually being broadcast in 4K. We just need the technology to catch up, and we need to have enough mobiles (trucks) to present all the games," Corte said.