Hollywood exec Mark Millar brings AI streaming camera system to lower leagues
Cliftonhill, the loveable if ramshackle home of Albion Rovers, is not where anyone might expect to learn about robotic cameras powered by artificial intelligence.
A conversation between a Hollywood producer working in Los Angeles and a League Two chairman in May sparked a chain of events leading to yesterday’s event to launch a state-of-the-art camera system set to change the way football is viewed in this country, and, potentially, elsewhere.
It is also expected to prove lifesaving for a number of small clubs who now have the ability to livestream games through cutting edge AI technology without the need for large, expensive outdoor broadcast teams. Twenty two of 30 clubs outwith the Premiership have already signed up. The technology uses a multi-camera array that covers the whole field of play before streaming the action straight into sports venues and homes. The footage is of high enough quality to be used by television broadcasters for highlight packages.
Mark Millar – the aforementioned Hollywood producer and creator of such comic book titles as Kick-Ass, later made into a film starring Brad Pitt – was pleasantly surprised to learn the scales had fallen from the eyes of many Scottish clubs during the pandemic.
“Small Scottish clubs have a reputation for not being forward thinking, so you are thinking: ‘this is going to be difficult’,” said Millar, who is originally from Coatbridge and still watches Albion Rovers when he is in the country.
“But they suddenly thought: ‘we can either stick with the 19th century plan of how many people we can get into the stadium and how many pies we can sell or we can take advantage of the fact we live in a world where people can sit in New Zealand and watch a game’. They got it. They realised the ex-pat audience can be huge.”
Millar, now an executive at Netflix, explained the genesis of the project. “Back in lockdown, everyone was going mad trying to think of something to do. I was lucky, I was editing a film and a TV show and writing new stuff. My job is one of the few where you can stay in the house.
“But I was getting so bored. The kids were driving me mental. I was worrying about my pals who were losing their jobs. And then I thought about the Rovers. On Facebook it said they were trying to raise £10,000 just to survive the next few months. This is not good. Ten grand does not go that far.”
Millar started thinking out of the box. “It was a nice distraction,” he said. He had originally planned to do something more traditional – facilitating broadcasting lower league games on television. He phoned up the heads of BBC and ITV. He learned that even hiring a broadcast van to televise a single game costs £20,000.
“Then I started chatting online,” he continued. Twitter brought him into contact with Iain McMenemy, the forward-thinking chairman of Stenhousemuir. Like Millar, he is not afraid of innovation.
“We are kindred spirits,” said Millar. Handily, Millar had a friend with a business providing digital platforms for sport. The upshot is Pixellott, a single camera installation – one is already perched unobtrusively at the top of a Cliftonhill main stand pillar – that will allow fans of Scottish lower league clubs to pay to watch their team play closed door matches.
Managers and coaches will also be able to record training sessions and prepare video analysis.
Millar has committed to funding the system at Cliftonhill for three years. Costing around £12,000 to install, it will require another £3,000 a year to maintain the software system.
Clubs can begin earning much-needed income as soon as their season starts next month. Premier Sports, who own the rights for the Betfred Cup, have given permission to clubs to livestream first round group games, which kick-off in the first week of October. Sky Sports, who hold the SPFL broadcast rights, have given permission for clubs to livestream league games.
Albion Rovers are fortunate to have a media mogul like Millar to shoulder the financial burden, initially at least. Those Championship clubs who have signed up to date have received funding from Watch&Bet, a supplier of live sports video to online and retail bookmakers.
The recent donation from philanthropist James Anderson has proved a game-changer for some clubs.
“The James Anderson money has been the difference, if it was not for that then we would not be able to afford this,” said McMenemy, whose club, Stenhousemuir, have a significant fan base in Norway. These far-flung supporters, and those of other clubs, can now look forward to tuning in every week.
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