In January this year the sport broadcast fraternity lost an unsung hero. Tony Verna,
who passed away at the age of 81, achieved little recognition for an invention that
changed sports broadcasting history.
On 7 December, 1963, US Army and Navy football teams squared off in their annual
game in Philadelphia. In the fourth quarter, Army quarterback Carl Stichweh faked
a handoff and ran into the end zone for a touchdown.
Army fans watching at home were ecstatic. But then something strange happened.
Stichweh again faked a handoff and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. The
event was so disorienting that Lindsey Nelson, the commentator for the broadcast,
had to explain to the audience at home that what they had seen wasn’t live. “Ladies
and gentlemen, Army did not score again,’ he said.
Tony Verna, a young CBS producer, with a 580kg Ampex videotape machine
perched on a seat in the van, using an untested method of recording tone to mark
an event, on a used I Love Lucy tape, performed the first ever live instant replay; a
technological innovation that would change sport broadcasts forever.
The use of technology in televised games today has in many ways helped evolve
sport into the multimillion dollar business ventures that it has become. Action
replays, super slow-mos, Hawk Eye, Ref Cam and 3D predictive tracking are all
technologies that have become the norm, reflecting our modern-day viewing
psyche, where stats, viewing angles, the size and the look of the game are what
consumes our attention.
Sport broadcasting has become the life blood of television worldwide. NBC Sports in
the US, for example, has drawn up a schedule of over 2 000 live sport events this
year alone to provide the schedule craved by their viewers. Escalating viewer
demand for sport continues to drive many of the technological advances in the
broadcast industry. This is changing the way sport is both delivered and watched.
Traditionally, television viewing has been essentially a passive experience, with
content fed to the viewer. PC-based internet has an active component and requires
significant involvement from the user, and the high degree of selectivity available
with modern interactive broadcasts is having a dramatic effect on consumer viewing
habits, allowing viewers to effectively customise their television experience.
As content providers produce a record number of programmes in an attempt to
satisfy sports fans’ appetites, new mediums are being embraced at a rapid rate.
New media enters the game
“Tweet the announcer! Text your answer to this number! Like us on Facebook!’
Across sports, social media is obviously the new frontier.
The technology and means available for delivering sport to different sections of
society is continuing to rapidly grow. The new media explosion does more than
begin to make “any sport, any event, any time, any device’ a viable reality for the
fan. It also begins to blur the boundary between sport, gaming and reality. Enter
the age of eSports.
The League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena genre video game and
while it might not be a “real sport’ according to certain TV executives, eSports like
this are set to break records this year in terms of live arena and television
broadcasting. ESPN has embraced eSport with relish.
At the World Championships 2015, 23 cameras will provide 35 hours of coverage in
a real test of endurance to its 40 000 capacity stadium audience. The broadcast to
an estimated 55 million viewers will be in 13 languages, with facilities that are
similar to that of a regular broadcast event. The Master Control Room (MCR) will be
in Los Angeles, with producers in New York and Berlin controlling the production of
the broadcast. The growing popularity of eSports is so big that some US colleges
have begun offering athletic scholarships to gamers.
Ultra HD waiting on the sideline
Broadcasters are always focused on finding ways to bring fans closer to the action
and players. The undoubted staple remains visual – new cameras and new angles.
ESPN’s annual X-Games have long been an incubator for new television technology
and their planned use of drones this year marks the first time the aerial devices are
being used to cover a live sporting event. The natural progression for 2015 has to
Sport is one area where 4K technologies could really improve the viewing
experience. With instant replays in Ultra HD, audiences might be able to judge
whether a player has dived for a penalty or really was brought down illegally or if
the ball has crossed the try line in a game of rugby. With sport looking to be the
best way forward for 4K, both BT Sport and SKY Sports are developing their
systems to try and fully utilise the technology’s full potential. BT states that it could
start broadcasting Barclays Premiership matches in Ultra HD as early as the 2015-
Towards the end of last year the BSkyB team took the opportunity of the fortuitous
timing and giant scale of the Ryder Cup Golf Tournament to put together a major
trial of 4K UHD technology in a live environment across the broadcast chain.
Technology experts Virtz have long been developers of powerful onscreen graphic
engines. With today’s data-driven and interactive technology, graphics are also the
easiest and most cost-effective method to covering the action as it happens. Vizrt
were involved in the successful BSkyB trials.
Vizrt executive VP sports Dr. Stephan Wurmlin Stadler comments: “Graphics are
something that can make the switch to 4K extremely quickly and easily – mostly
owing to the fact they’re vector-based and therefore scalable. Customers who no
longer want just one or two tools to create specific graphics but instead want a
complete creative suite to create immersive and innovative graphics. This way,
sports broadcasters have more than one way to tell a story.’
So bigger and better is the long term forecast. As long as viewers demand it, and
technical “wizards’ can dream it up, it seems the sport broadcast industry can
deliver it. Perhaps one day broadcasters will develop virtual reality viewing that
puts the viewer on the field of play. Can it be done? Sure, if you want it… we’re
working on it!
– Ian Dormer