USFL Kickoff: Fox Sports, NBC Sports Aim To Revolutionize Football Coverage With Specialty Cameras
All games will be produced in 1080p HDR with many upconverted to 4K
By Jason Dachman, Chief Editor
Friday, April 15, 2022 - 3:16 pm
Although several spring football leagues have popped up in recent years, none have come close to packing the production-technology punch that is expected in USFL broadcasts. The league, which is majority-owned by Fox Sports, kicks off this weekend with a simulcast of its first game on both Fox and fellow broadcast partner NBC. Regardless of the quality of play on the field, one thing is for sure: the broadcast will look unlike any football game you’ve watched before.
“Since the outset, the directive from [Fox Sports CEO/Executive Producer and USFL Chairman] Eric Shanks and [Fox Sports President, Production and Operations/Executive Producer], Brad Zager was to come up with technology that meaningfully complements the game on the field,” says Mike Davies, SVP, field operations, Fox Sports. “As league owners, we can work seamlessly with USFL football operations to integrate these elements — and we swung for the fences on quite a bit of it.”
A New Era: Production Technology at the Core of USFL Broadcasts
All games will be produced in 1080p HDR, and more than half the Fox games will be available as 4K HDR upconverted broadcasts. Fox Sports will carry 22 games (12 on Fox, 10 on FS1); NBC Sports will present 21 games (eight on NBC, nine on USA Network, four on Peacock). The league will call Birmingham, AL, home for the entire regular season (with the majority of games played in the recently opened Protective Stadium) before shifting to Canton, OH, for the Playoffs at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
With the production and engineering teams essentially given carte blanche to think big, these broadcasts will feature bleeding-edge production tools rarely, if ever, seen on NFL broadcasts.
Among the highlights: high-speed drones, HelmetCams on four players, dual Skycams (one behind the offense, one behind the defense), RF wireless 3X-super-slow cameras on the field, 16 player microphones per team, full access to the coach and ref comms systems, an automated first-down measuring system with accompanying animations (think Hawk-Eye for tennis), and, possibly, even a “glowing football” in key situations (remember FoxTrax on NHL games in the ’90s?). Plus, the 10-week regular season looks to be the biggest Home Run Production effort Fox has ever undertaken.
“What we’re doing is unprecedented,” says Fox Sports producer Chuck McDonald, who will be at the front bench for Fox’s USFL productions. “I don’t know of anybody who has ever had this kind of opportunity. No one has ever had a blank slate where you are asked, ‘How would you like to cover the best television sport that exists if you had no limits?’. That’s how it has been approached from the beginning, and I can’t wait to see what we do as the season goes on because it’s just going to get better.”
Not Your Granddad’s Cameras: Custom Drone, HelmetCams, Dual Skycams
Beverly Hills Aerials has designed a custom-built drone specifically for the USFL that is as fast as a racing drone but is roughly the size of your open hands together.
While the use of dual Skycam aerial systems has become more common for high-profile NFL and college football games, USFL broadcasts will use the pair in a very different fashion. The low Skycam will be in the usual configuration just behind the offense, but the high version will be used primarily on the defensive side of the play with a 25X lens, allowing the production team to isolate a player or route to better capture action coming at the camera.
ActionStreamer is providing four HelmetCams per game (two for each team), and CP Communications is on hand with two RefCams.
3G Wireless is providing three RF 3X-super-slow wireless handheld cameras: two handhelds and one Steadicam (Week 1 will feature two Steadicams).
In addition to the drone, dual Skycams, four HelmetCams, and two RefCams, the broadcast will deploy four PylonCam systems located in the end zones (with three cameras per pylon) and two line-to-gain wireless PylonCam systems on the field.
In all, Fox and NBC will deploy 56 cameras in Birmingham, including 20+ for coverage (eight of them super-slo-mo), four for the coaches booth, and two dedicated to the play audio iso shots.
“We’re trying to make a concerted effort to make this look and feel and sound different from what you would see on an NFL Sunday,” says NBC Sports producer Matt Marvin, who will be at the front bench for NBC this weekend and split USFL games with producer Steven Greenberg throughout the season. “With that in mind, there are plenty of new and different cameras and audio [elements] that we think are going to create an entirely new experience [for viewers].”
CLICK HERE for Fox Sports and NBC Sports Producers on Creating a ‘Totally Different Kind of Football Broadcast’
Audio All About Access: Player Mics, Coach Comms, Transparent Officiating
All USFL game productions will deploy 16 Q5X player mics per team, all available to use live via a player-mic audio submixer. The system, which is being provided and managed by CP Communications, will make eight on-field player mics available for the broadcast at any given moment. The league will also provide Fox and NBC access to both teams’ locker rooms at halftime.
Fox and NBC will have interconnections to the coach and referee communication systems, allowing the production team to listen to the coaches talk to each other, coaches talking to players, and the refs talking to each other and to USFL Head Official Mike Pereira at the Replay Command Center in Los Angeles.
Pereira, longtime Fox Sports rules analyst and former NFL VP of officiating, will be playing a dual role each weekend as both a replay official and on-air talent for both Fox and NBC broadcasts. In a new twist to video review of plays, Pereira will be analyzing replays in real-time while on-air and discussing the play with the announcers.
“[The officiating] is going to be fully transparent,” says McDonald. “We have [Mike’s] audio to the refs, and we have all the officials’ audio so we can listen in to all of that. There is nothing we aren’t allowed to listen in on. So, when Mike stops the play or when a score happens, we can go be a fly on the wall, but we can also insert ourselves [and] our guys can have a conversation with him.”
CLICK HERE for SVG’s full story on the USFL’s audio coverage plans.
Tracking and Virtual Graphics: Automated First Downs, the ‘Glowing Ball’
The USFL will also use an automated first-down measuring system that doesn’t involve the traditional chains used by NFL and other leagues. Rather than marching out the chains, refs will now defer to a video-review system similar to the one used in pro tennis to determine if a ball crossed the first-down plane.
BOLT6 is supplying the optical tracking system, which is able to provide the USFL with millimeter-accurate ball positioning at each spot by the officials. Contrary to many reports, the system does not leverage the chip inside the football but rather is fully optically based. Bolt6 (which operates the system remotely out of its UK office) has mounted eight cameras inside the stadium, and these feeds are uploaded to the cloud, where the system determines positioning and links to a custom-built interface by the Fox Sports Graphics Technology team for rendering.
Perhaps the buzziest production element of Fox’s USFL broadcast plans is the potential for a “glowing football” that harks back to Fox’s use of a glowing puck on its NHL coverage from 1996 to ’98. Fox has teamed up with ShotTracker to use tracking data from a microchip embedded in the football to create the glowing ball using SMT virtual-graphics technology. Fox stresses that it wants to wait and see how the technology fits into the coverage and that it would just be used in selected situations, so don’t necessarily expect to see it opening weekend.
Opening Weekend: Onsite in Birmingham for the Birth of a New League
This weekend, both Fox and NBC’s production teams are onsite in Birmingham, where they will be sharing Game Creek Video Gridiron A and B mobile units to produce the NBC/Fox simulcast on Saturday and triple-header on Sunday.
“Since the start, we’ve been having these conversations about how best to proceed,” says Brad Cheney, VP, field operations and engineering, Fox Sports. “Each time, it came back to one truck and one crew [onsite]. [That] allows us all to focus in on having the best people and technology so that we produce the best show across all four networks this weekend.”
Although the technical crew will remain largely the same for all broadcasts, the front bench will be playing musical chairs. On Saturday, NBC’s producer/director team will handle the pre/postgame and halftime shows; Fox’s producer and director will be at the front bench for the game itself. The same commercials will run on each network throughout the broadcast.
On Sunday, NBC will be in the truck for the noon ET kickoff of Houston-Michigan on NBC/Peacock, and Fox will handle the Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh game at 8 p.m. on FS1. The Philadelphia-New Orleans game at 4 p.m. on USA Network will be produced remotely from NBC Sports facilities in Stamford, CT.
Shifting Back Home: Ensuing Broadcasts Will Be Produced in L.A., Stamford
Although both NBC and Fox will have production teams onsite for opening week, the remaining nine weeks of the regular season will be remote-production affairs. Fox will leverage its Home Run Production model to produce broadcasts from its Pico Blvd. facility in Los Angeles; NBC’s production team will be in Stamford.
USFL broadcasts will have more than 120 feeds (most of which have 16 channels of associated audio) arriving at Fox L.A. and NBC Stamford simultaneously. All of these feeds will leave Birmingham across an expansive set of EPL circuits, which are carrier- and path-diverse.
“In doing this,” says Cheney, “we’ve created one of the most advanced and varied transmission production executions to date, developed by our in-house engineering teams from the ground up. We have some feeds as SSMO phases; some traverse the public internet; some are satellite, with the majority being IP with the goal of creating a very diverse and protected system utilizing the best technologies available.”
The USFL Playoffs will be produced onsite in Canton, but all games — even when produced from site — will deploy this same transmission network to provide the Rules Command Center in Los Angeles with connectivity and game coverage.
Joint Effort: Fox, NBC Team Up To Create New Vision
Although the initial vision for USFL’s broadcasts came from the executive team at Fox Sports, their compatriots at NBC Sports have served as integral collaborators in development of the final broadcast plans. As the two groups head into their first weekend of USFL coverage, the result looks to be a wholly new football-viewing experience for fans.
“Working with NBC has been amazing,” says Cheney. “The open collaboration between us has been effortless. The tasks outlined by Eric Shanks, Brad Zager, [NBC Sports Group Chairman] Pete Bevacqua, and [NBC Sports Executive Producer/President, Production,] Sam Flood were immense, and to be able to combine two top-level production and technical teams made the tasks easy to accomplish. It has been great to see us work as one team from day one last week, and we’re all looking forward to a great season.”