NFL Repositioning of Umps Requires Audio Revamp

For the upcoming football season, the NFL has moved the umpire from his customary spot on the defensive side of the ball just behind the inside linebackers to the offensive side adjacent to the referee and 15 yards off the line of scrimmage. The repositioning is intended to make things safer for the official after several have incurred injuries — in one game last year, umpire Garth DeFelice was knocked down four times.

However, the move creates a potential casualty: audio from the field for TV mixers. The umpire has been fitted with a wireless microphone since Fox took on NFL broadcasts in 1994, and, in that time, that mic position has become a crucial element in the audio mix.

“One of our most valuable microphones on the field was that umpire microphone,” says Fred Aldous, Fox Sports audio consultant and senior mixer. “It let us hear the quarterback cadence, the initial surge of the line, and hear the middle linebacker call defensive plays.”

As preseason play is about to get under way, Aldous is in discussions with league officials and NFL Films this week, seeking a way to replace that critical audio element.

The solution that will undergo tests in preseason is to integrate wireless microphones into the clothing of several players, particularly the center and middle linebacker. The center is well positioned to pick up the quarterback cadence, and the linebacker’s mic would be able to pick up defensive calls,  says Aldous.

Placement will be important. He estimates that a lavalier microphone placed somewhere between the center’s shoulder blades would be effective. The middle linebacker would have his nestled somewhere in his shoulder pads.

Until now, the NFL has not sanctioned microphones on players during game play, only during warm-ups. In the event the league permits it — and there’s every indication that it will — the audio would be under league control. This would make the signal path somewhat more complex and introduce one more potential point of failure into the chain: the audio would have to be sent from the player to a league audio position, monitored there, then sent either wirelessly or via cable to the broadcast mix position.

Other possible complications include if one of the wired players had to leave the game when time was an issue (for example, no remaining timeouts). That would prevent the audio crew from being able to add a microphone to a replacement player.

Bruce Goldfeder, director of engineering at CBS, which effectively splits the NFL season with Fox, expects that each alternate center in each game will be wired for sound, as well as several offensive linemen. CBS will test the newly wired players in its first preseason game on Aug. 27 when Dallas visits Houston, but Goldfeder believes this arrangement will work out better than with a microphone on the umpire. “We’re optimistic because the sound from the center is going to be awesome,” he says. “It’s going to have you right in the middle of the action and even closer than before.”

The only other alternative would be to rely more heavily on parabola microphones working on the sidelines, which he will likely suggest regardless of how other options develop.  “We’ll have them go deeper into the play,” he explains, “versus in the past when we relied on the umpire microphone and put the parabolas further downfield to pick up the play action.”

Preseason play will likely see various configurations of possible solutions, and the experiment may continue after the season starts in September until a solution is found.