Inside Fox Sports' deployment of drones during the Big East Men's Basketball Tournament
Fox Sports have adopted drones as a part of their broadcast production strategy, giving a brand new viewing experience for fans at home.
BY TOM FRIEND
No television network — linear or streaming — seems more fascinated with drones than Fox, which last week believes it became the first to fly one over a live indoor college basketball game. Last Wednesday through Saturday at Madison Square Garden, the network's Big East Tournament coverage included two immersive drones that provided mobile overhead camera views rare to the sport.
Almost simultaneously, Fox unleashed its usual drones during the network’s signature NASCAR coverage this weekend, where the unmanned cameras were more unfettered and daring because, frankly, they had more room.
Either way, the novel indoor integration at the Garden featured a diminutive racing drone swerving from a corporate suite down to the floor in a beat of 10 seconds, plus other revealing mountaintop views coming out of commercials. The network was admittedly conservative due to safety protocols and a vow not to fly over the court during play. But Fox had to start somewhere at the Big East Tournament weekend and expects drones to become a basketball staple in the future.
“Right now, we're not planning on using this camera as part of our replay sequence or anything like that,’’ says Geordie Wimmer, VP of Production at Fox. “Could the drone be something to go from baseline-to-baseline on a fast break to show you how fast the guys are running? Or how fast the team is going? I think that's kind of a cool idea. I don't know if we're ready to do that because of just the unpredictable nature of how the game is and having your drone up and ready. The drone's not flying the entire time.
“But could that be something? Once they're adopted as being part of a broadcast production and deemed safe — which they are to the athlete and to the fans — once we're past all those barriers, there's so much that these cameras can do to show the speed and power with which these athletes are moving.’’
The two drones at the Garden — a bulkier Gimbal and a diminutive racing drone — were owned and operated by the drone cinema company Beverly Hills Aerials, whose pilots are trained to fly the objects with nuance and precision. During highly-rated NASCAR telecasts such as the Daytona 500, the Clash and Talladega, Beverly Hills Aerials unleashes a similar FPV (First Person View) racing drone that travels upwards of 100 mph to keep up with the racecars and is flown by pilots wearing VR goggles.
To achieve that, the FPV drone elicits a video feed to the VR headset, allowing the operator to film the race as he is maneuvering the drone down the speedway. In the case of Fox’s upcoming coverage of the USFL, a fledgling football league that embraces risk, the network will position drones directly behind kick returners to deliver unprecedented footage of the runbacks.
In the past, they’ve also deployed drones directly behind safeties in the secondary, and, so far, the unmanned objects haven’t swooped in too far to become a 12th defensive player. A similar dramatic drone activation at Fox’s coverage of MLB’s Field of Dreams game went glowingly, while ESPN unveiled its own drone during last November’s outdoor Michigan State-Gonzaga basketball game on the USS Abraham Lincoln battleship. Which is why last week’s indoor basketball endeavor inched the bar incrementally forward.
“We ended up having the drone shoot free throws from the opposite end, with the drone starting out low from the other side of the court and then rising high,’’ Wimmer says. “We weren’t going anywhere near players or coaches or staff. But we wanted to try to push it a little bit to just give you a unique perspective that you've never had.’’
Meaning Fox’s basketball coverage, when it returns in 2023-24, will continue to drone on.