Canadian Football League Downplays Onfield Audio

By: Dan Daley, Audio Editor, Sports Video Group

The Canadian Football League is back in season, and, if not bigger than ever, it’s at least as big as ever: it numbers nine teams for the first time since 2005, with the addition of the Ottawa RedBlacks; has a 20-week schedule, one week longer than last season’s; and has put contentious collective-bargaining negotiations behind it. What the CFL doesn’t have, however, is a lot of onfield broadcast sound.

The league’s shows, broadcast on the TSN network (itself having just concluded a new, substantially more lucrative five-year contract with the league), have been in 5.1 surround for nine years, and effects sound is gathered using many of the same techniques and products its U.S. counterparts deploy.

At each game, there are two Big Ears parabolic reflectors, each connected to a Sennheiser 5212 wireless transmitter, and there is talk of doubling that in the near future. Two hand-held cameras cover the benches and the game, each with a Sennheiser MKH 418 stereo shotgun microphone attached, and a roving golf cart has a mono shotgun aboard. The single iso camera used for regular-season games has a shotgun attached, and a second iso is added during playoffs, with a total of four covering the ultimate, Grey Cup championship match.

But, where the NFL has loaded up with onfield audio in recent years, wiring several players per game to pick up scrimmage cadences and calls to compensate for the repositioning of the umpire four years ago, the CFL continues to rely on its umpire for play audio. Putting the microphones even closer to the action has deepened viewer engagement for the NFL, while keeping its umpires safer. Canadian football, on the other hand, places its umpire even farther from the action, and that’s taking place on a gridiron that is bigger than its American counterpart.

The Canadian field is 110 yards long x 65 yards wide, versus 100 yards long by 53.5 yards wide in American football, and the 20-yard-deep end zones are twice as deep as those in the U.S. That’s nearly 50% more square footage to cover for audio.

According to Paul Graham, VP/executive producer for live events at TSN, the network and the league have experimented with various onfield microphone placements, including on the center and the left and right guards. But none have been approved for regular use.

The resistance comes mainly from the teams. Some of it is practical. The NFL lets as much as 40 seconds elapse between downs whereas the CFL’s grace period is half that. Therefore, the center is relied on to tactically reposition the offensive line while the quarterback concentrates on strategy. “In 40 seconds, Peyton Manning can do it all by himself,” Graham says. “We don’t have that luxury.”

But the real opposition lies in the teams’ concerns about loss of strategic security if an open mic happens to catch a critical instruction from a coach or if a play is signaled to the opposing team’s defensive coordinator. Graham acknowledges that it’s a legitimate concern in a small league, where, after five months of play, everyone has seen everyone else more than a few times.

And the culture of the CFL — where the will of individual team owners tends to prevail, versus the more centralized, top-down NFL culture — means that onfield audio will probably not get much louder in the near future.

“We have a solid relationship with the league,” says Graham, “and they tend to be supportive of the idea, but not so much the teams themselves.”

That won’t stop the network from continuing to bring the idea up, suggesting various approaches that could allay the teams’ concerns. Those approaches include tightly limiting the time that the fader on the player microphones can be open. The NFL exercises total control over the onfield audio, routing the wireless player mics directly to its own consoles operated by their own A1s. In the CFL, it’s not clear how responsibility and costs for this would be allocated among the teams.

“Even though the broadcast money has increased significantly now with the new contract, it’s not the kind of money you see for NFL broadcast rights,” says Graham. “It’s a small league, so added costs will always be a factor.” (The value of the TSN deal, in conjunction with ESPN, which shows 17 CFL games a season in the U.S. on ESPN3, has been reported at around $40 million. By contrast, the NFL received a reported $27 billion for the nine-year extensions to its broadcast-television packages with Fox, NBC, and CBS inked in 2011.)

But Graham is optimistic that this will eventually change, simply because the onfield audio is so compelling: “It’s something I’d like to hear.”