By Jeff Fedotin Contributor
I cover the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL and sports business.
A television director for FOX Sports, Mitch Riggin grew up playing with remote-controlled airplanes.
That childhood avocation explains his enthusiasm when he found out that he’d oversee the flying of battery-controlled devices as part of his adult profession.
“I was super geeked out,” Riggin said. “It was exciting technology and exciting to have access to that.”
It’s not only exciting, but FOX Sports’ use of drones as part of its inaugural coverage of the new United States Football League (USFL) is also groundbreaking.
“In terms of the United States,” said Michael Davies, FOX Sports’ senior vice president of field and technical operations, “I can say that for sure we’re the first people to use drones inside the playing arena for play-by-play of stick-and-ball sports.”
FOX Sports has been using drones on supercross and golf — sports where you have more wide-open space — for eight or nine years.
“It’s been in our bones for quite a while,” Davies said.
But its use became heightened for NASCAR races during the Covid-19 pandemic. With no fans around, the drones had room to roam and could provide uniquely up-close footage.
Then FOX Sports committed a reported $150 million over three years as part of its ownership stake in the USFL.
That gave FOX Sports — also a broadcast partner of the USFL — the power to experiment with using the drones as part of its coverage.
Plus, the drones had become much safer as technology continued to advance. The custom-created devices have molded plastic protective guards and carbon fiber pieces with soft foam as protection to prevent the players and referees from suffering nicks or cuts.
“It’s super safe,” Riggin said. “That was obviously our No. 1 goal.”
So that the USFL players could get used to the presence of the drones and the noise they emit, the devices flew around them during practices.
“All the players loved it, “Riggin said. “They were mugging to the camera.”
FOX Sports has two drones. The “heavy lift” is the smooth, slower-moving drone, which Riggins compared to a helicopter.
Secondly, a smaller, speedier first-person view (FPV) drone is perfect for wide receiver isolation shots because it can follow the player from behind and then swing to the front after the wide receiver catches the ball.
\In another instance Houston Gamblers linebacker Reggie Northrup returned a fumble for a 90-yard touchdown, and the drone flew behind him.
“It’s incredibly nimble and robust,” said Beverly Hills Aerials lead pilot Michael Izquierdo. “We’re able to get these shots that have never been possible before.”
That smaller drone, which is built and operated by Beverly Hills Aerials, is about six inches by six inches and weighs less than a pound. It has a custom camera, transmitter and its own radio frequency. It has the capability to go faster than 100 mph but has been tailored to top out at about 60 for USFL use so that it has a more efficient motor and flies longer.
The heavy-lift drone is about seven-feet wide, weighs about 55 pounds and costs in the $250,000 range.
Izquierdo, the drone pilot, is part of a three-man crew. There’s also a spotter and a tech person who launches it from the field and changes the battery, which has 10 minutes of life but can be recharged in less than one minute.
USFL’s 10-week regular season concludes on June 19, but for FOX’s very first opening shot in Week One on April 16, the heavy-lift drone flew in from the field before the game and zoomed past the mascots, cheerleaders and the championship trophy as the players readied to walk through the tunnel.
A Beverly Hills Aerial drone provided a panoramic view when it flew over the lake at the front of SoFi Stadium prior to Super Bowl LVI.
“It was not on-the-field coverage,” Izquierdo said. “It’s more around the stadium.”
That is the extent of its use for NFL coverage. But the drone technology implemented in USFL broadcasts continues to evolve.
“I hope,” Davies said, “that this is just the beginning.”