LTS 2012: Latest Tech Innovations From Pro Leagues Center on In-Game Audio, Player Tracking

Pro sports leagues are constantly searching for innovative new ways to bring fans inside the game and offer up a new perspective behind the scenes. At SVG’s League Technology Summit last week, a quintet of technology leaders from these leagues took the stage to address their latest innovations and how these tools add to fans’ television and multiplatform video experience.

Mic’ed Up – Everybody’s Doing It
The bulk of the discussion centered not on video enhancements, but rather the audio side, specifically the micing of players, coaches, and referees/umpires during live games.

Throughout 2012, PGA Tour Entertainment has produced a quick-turnaround series called Down the Stretch, which followed a miced player or pairing throughout a full round in an effort to give viewers a more intimate view of the game.

“Any technology that allows us to capture what is happening behind the scenes of these tournaments without actually becoming a part of it is very important to us,” said David Dukes, PGA Tour Entertainment, Senior Director, Technical Operations. “So from a technology perspective, anything that minimizes that impact on [the player during the round] is key. You need to get these [mics] and small and unobtrusive as possible if you’re going to sell [players] on the idea.”

The NBA faced a similar challenge in its efforts to mic players during games in order to provide this on-court audio to its broadcast partners.

“The first challenge was that we needed to design a whole new microphone,” said Steve Hellmuth, the NBA’s EVP of Operations and Technology and SVG Advisory Board Chairman. “We went to traditional microphone [manufactures] and they said ‘we just can’t do something like this.”

The league spent nearly five years developing a microphone seemed non-existent to the player wearing it. Developed in conjunction with wireless audio specialist Quantum5X, the NBA was able to create a flexible, waterproof (due to players’ excessive sweating), ultra-light-weight microphone that could do the job. The transmitter is put into a pouch in the player’s shorts, while them mic is sewn into the V-neck in the Adidas jersey.

MLB Network undertook one of the most challenging in-game audio experiments of any league last March during a spring training game in Scottsdale, AZ. The network deployed more than 60 live microphones on about half a dozen players per team, both managers, several coaches and umpires, and throughout the field (the network produced a similar in-game audio experiment in 2011, but did not take it to air).

This audio was delivered live during the MLB Network telecast (with a seven-second delay on-site and seven second delay at the network’s broadcast center in Secaucus, NJ) and served as the primary audio for the game along with barebones play-by-play from Matt Vasgersian.

“The biggest challenge aside from the equipment itself was having all that audio coming in,” said Susan Stone, MLB Network, SVP, Operations and Engineering. “How do route all that? You have to have a lot of production people to listen so you know where to go and what’s going on. At one point, we just kept every single mic open and hoped for the best.”

While leagues are micing players and coaches at a record clip, there is still a hesitation to deliver this audio live during a telecast – and with good reason.

“Viewers want [live audio] and they love it, but all the progress you make on this can be lost with just one F-bomb,” said Glenn Adamo, NFL, VP, Media Operations. “As broadcasters, I don’t think it’s worth it to take that leap when you consider the significant downside. I do think it enhances ratings and the viewing experience, but I think it’s a real danger personally.”

That said, the NFL is among the leaders in micing players for postproduction purposes, as well for capturing the snap count and nat sound on the field. In addition to being used on weekly in-review shows like NFL Network’s Turning Point or Showtime’s Inside the NFL, audio of mic’ed players on the sideline or on the field is often used by the league’s primary broadcast partners (CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC) for their pre- and post-game presentations.

Offside Confusion Is Off-Limits with MLS’s Virtual Graphic
Although Major League Soccer has experimented with plenty of their own audio innovations (including putting wireless mics in the ground on three different spots on the pitch during the MLS Cup last month), but MLS VP of Broadcasting Larry Tiscornia chose to highlight a more visual development – the virtual Offside Line graphic.

“One of the most crucial moments in our game is the offside, but many fans don’t necessarily understand the rule,” said Larry Tiscornia, Major League Soccer, VP, Broadcasting. “It’s basically taken 13 years to perfect this so that within in seconds of the offside, you see the [graphic] come up. That educates the viewer and enhances the broadcast, which why we’re doing these things in the first place. Now I think it needs to be come an industry standard like the first-down line in football.”

Goal or No Goal, That is the Question
Although the NHL may not currently be on the ice, the league has whipped up a number of technical innovations of its own over the past year, most notably, a more reliable goal review system. Previously, the NHL deployed an overhead camera in the rafters over both nets to determine whether the puck crossed goal line for a goal.

“We recognized that being able to identify a goal versus a non-goal is one the most important things we can possibly do,” said Grant Nodine, NHL, VP of Technology. “And we decided that [the overhead cameras] weren’t enough to be able to accurately make those calls. So we began looking at developing a wireless camera system that could be placed inside the net that had zero latency, had a battery that would last through three periods plus a shootout, could withstand the force of a slap shot, and would not fog up.”

Nodine and company teamed with Violation to create a small, pill-shaped device located in the net with a 60 GHz sends a signal to a receiver up in the rafters. Each venue takes in this signal and embeds the game clock data into it. This, along with the two overhead feeds and the home and away broadcast feeds are then encoded and delivered over the NHL’s multicast IP network to the league’s replay “War Room” in Toronto, where officials review each questionable goal using these six feeds.

With this in place, Nodine says the league is how looking to the next wave of innovations, including mics in the nets, a 1st-down marker for off-sides, or coloring in the crease after a goal is scored.