The Cutting-Edge Tech Behind American Sports TV (And What's Next)

Competition breeds innovation, especially in sports broadcasting. Think about Australian Cricket in the 1980s. Or today’s multi-billion dollar battle for sports rights and viewer experience bragging-rights between networks owned by ESPN, Fox, ABC and NBC. American sports take on-screen stats and graphics to an obsessive level. Here we look at some of our favourite tech.

This is the latest in our ‘Future of Sports Broadcasting’ series, presented in partnership with Samsung.

Zoom And Enhance

You’ve heard about the NFL’s television time-outs, which include mandatory time-outs for TV commercials. Here in Australia, Channel 7 and 10 ask the AFL to break after a goal and before the bounce while Twenty20 cricket also has certain mandatory pauses.

But did you know that NBC’s Sunday Night Football production team also sit with players and coaches before games to confidentially talk about strategy and identify things to look out for come game time? 10-time Emmy award winning producer Fred Gaudelli told Gizmodo’s sister site, Deadspin, that the tips help his team give certain plays special attention and “set up a replay sequence to show the viewer.”

Gaudelli pioneered NFL coverage using the now-standard virtual first-down line while working with ESPN over a decade ago, and with NBC has introduced “NBCEE It” technology that lets pundits zoom into a shot and pan around the frame. Viewers and replay officials alike can make more accurate judgements on plays.

Take a look at NBCEE It in action below...

Matrix-Style 360 Degree Sweeps

Things are about to get even more interesting: NBC Sunday Night Football is about to introduce 360-degree, matrix-like replays to give Americans space-aged eye candy to fill the time during a coach’s challenge.

The breakthrough in replay technology is enabled by the placement of a24 cameras in each end zone, allowing every possible play perspective to be stitched together into one comprehensive view that would have really blown your mind back in 1999.

The tech will go into effect starting during next week’s Cowboys-Giants game.

Major League Baseball is also working with Replay Technologies’ Free Dimensional Video (also known as freeD) system. The 3D reconstructions enable accurate measurement of position, speed and velocity so all of the bases are pretty much covered (right?!), and freeD uses a combination of static and dynamic replay options for maximum insight from every angle. Replay Technologies seems to be in a pilot phase right now, like the one above with the Yankees and a recent program with the Dallas Cowboys.

Another take on 360-degree coverage is the Fraunhofer Institute's OmniCam360 — an ultra-compact 360-degree camera weighing in at just over 13kg that can be easily set up by a single operator.

When placed over a field at a stadium, or on stage at a concert hall, the OmniCam360′s 10 cameras work together to create a panoramic view of the action, theoretically letting the viewer pan or simply select the specific angle they want to watch. Unfortunately, current broadcast systems don’t really have the capability to let viewers switch between angles during a live broadcast, but Blu-ray discs most definitely do.

Extreme Slow Motion

Over the last few years, Vision Research’s Phantom camera range has become synonymous with extreme-slow motion. The technology is constantly improving and is now capable of shooting from 5fps to a whopping 20,000 frames-per-second.

Various Phantom models are already being used in Australian sports broadcasts: Melbourne Cup, State of Origin, the AFL, A-League football, Australian Open Tennis and even Surf Life Saving Championships. What’s next? The Phantom Flex4K for uber-high resolution.

During last year’s MLB World Series, baseball fans were even able to witness the compression of the ball and bend of the bat. The UFC has also been using Phantom cameras, most recently in its first fight night broadcast on newly minted Fox Sports 1.

Looking Ahead

Speaking of Fox Sports 1 (or FS1), the new channel is taking on cable sports powerhouse ESPN, and just outbid its rival for a 12-year stink of US Open golf rights from 2015. On free-to-air, Fox has introduced a few sport broadcasting innovations in its time (including ice hockey’s fluorescent puck) and promises to try a few things “that maybe haven’t been done before [to] bring the sport into living rooms in a way that’s a bit more compelling.” Fox also poached US rights for the 2018 World Cup away from 80 per cent Disney-owned ESPN.

But ESPN is ready for the challenge. It has two research labs that develop next-gen graphics and data mining to enhance viewer engagement. One of its interactive screen projects, code-named ‘2016’ would let viewers interact with multiple ESPN channels, videos, social media and commercials – simultaneously via remote control.

Meanwhile, the NBA is installing high-tech cameras in every league arena to let coaches track players. And 75 years after the first televised Major League baseball game, the MLB has voted to soon extend instant replays. Broadcast technology continues to change the way the sports we watch are analysed and adjudicated.

Goal Line technology will be used at the next World Cup to avoid ghost goals and the English Premiere League has invested more than £2 million installing Hawk-Eye-based goal line cameras across 20 league grounds for the upcoming season. The system is accurate to within 4mm, and Premiere League bosses are hoping they’ve found the answer to goal line controversies.

At home and on screens in the grounds, fans will see graphics based on information the cameras have gathered. It’ll be interesting to see how competing broadcasters Sky Sports and upstart BT Sports handle goal line graphics in a sea of ex-Liverpool player pundits and competing screen-in-screen statistics. Innovation or digital distraction? It’s all in the presentation.

And fancy graphics aside, the real battlelines in US sports broadcasting are only now being drawn. Traditional cable and satellite operators will soon compete against major players in online video.

It’s a great time to be a sports fan, and you know we’ll be watching closely.

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