Why aren’t sports programs in 1080p (or 4K for that matter?)

Because they’re not? Ok, that’s not a very good answer, but it actually is pretty close to the right one. You would think that sports programming would be out there in glorious 1080p or even 4K, but the truth is it isn’t, and there is a very good reason for that: money.

Over-the-air programs

Let’s look first at broadcast sports. You know what I mean… sports that you find on your local broadcast station. There are zero — precisely no — broadcasters that put out a 1080p signal. They could if they wanted to, it’s part of the broadcast specifications, but when broadcasters went to high definition about ten years ago, there were no 1080p televisions and 1080p equipment was insanely expensive. (Yeah, today your cell phone can record 1080p, but broadcasters are still paying the bill for the transmitters and encoders they bought back in the last decade.) All HD broadcasting in the US is in either 720p or 1080i. 1080i may sound a lot like 1080p, but it’s really only half as good, and 720p is even worse.

So, if a game starts with recording and broadcasting equipment provided by a local station, it won’t be 1080p. Sorry, that’s just the way it is, as Bruce Hornsby used to say.

There still aren’t any 4K broadcasts over-the-air. I’ve talked about them, but it’s still going to be a while before you see 4K over-the-air as more than just test broadcasts.

Cable and satellite channels

What about cable channels like ESPN and those pesky regional sports networks? ESPN also goes out at 720p because it’s part of the “Disney Industrial Complex” that includes ABC, and all Disney-owned stations use the same technology. Regional sports networks mostly use 1080i, sometimes because they share equipment with local broadcasters, and sometimes … just because they’re virtual monopolies that don’t need to really improve in order to get people to watch. Sorry folks, the truth hurts.

To make matters worse, ESPN is still smarting from a decade ago when it tried to do 3D sports, only to have that land with a big thud because no one had enough 3D glasses for an entire gameday party. They’re going to be a lot more careful with any new technologies.

Streaming

Now here’s where you’d think that you’d see some really good quality. “Technically” speaking the stuff you get over streaming is going to be 1080p as long as you have enough bandwidth to get the best quality. However, it’s all coming from 1080i cameras. It’s not the full 1920×1080 at 60 frames per second that you really want. The only difference is the technology. Because streaming signals aren’t actually broadcast, a full frame is sent at a time instead of the half-frame that’s sent on a 1080 broadcast.

Where is it all going?

The landscape is changing though, but 1080p isn’t the future. Broadcast networks, led by CBS, are getting into 4K cameras, just to be able to zoom in further, and slowly but surely we’re seeing more events captured in 4K so that future sports fans can look at them more closely. You’re starting to see some 4K sports, finally. DIRECTV and other providers are doing about one game a week most weeks. When the Olympics comes around, you’ll probably see a lot of 4K content, too. This doesn’t mean that any sports network is going to go 100% 4K in the near future, but the wheels are turning slowly.

You may never see sports in 1080p, but if we’re all lucky, we’ll see something better. 4K over-the-air is supposedly coming by 2025, and in the meantime satellite will deliver the best quality in 4K. Eventually, streaming speeds will go up high enough to deliver good quality 4K as well.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.