Listening in on player-coach comms promises peek behind the scenes

By Ken Kerschbaumer, Editorial Director, SVG

While Fox Sports was putting plenty of focus the past month on its execution of a 1080p HDR-production plan for Super Bowl LIV, another part of the team was focused on development of a production plan for this weekend’s kickoff of the XFL on Fox. There will also be one unifying element: the graphics package that debuted last week will be at the center of the XFL broadcasts.

“I like it a lot,” says Judy Boyd, SVP, Fox Sports Production, Fox Sports, of the new look. “It pops a lot, and I liked the touchdown-hero element. And keeping the quarterback’s statistics up wasn’t intrusive.”

Fox Sports is clearly no stranger to producing everything from massive football games like Super Bowl LIV to smaller college football games. NFL productions are known for three levels: A level for the top games of the week, B level, and C. The XFL broadcasts will rival a B-level game, with about 12 cameras — six of which will be capable of high-speed capture — deployed along with a Skycam for the game.

Sports-TV historians may recall that the original XFL introduced the cablecam to football coverage, changing TV production forever. Can the XFL do the same? There will be some innovations on the audio side that could ultimately change the way things are done.

“From the get-go, [the XFL’s] mantra [has been] to be the league of yes, and they have lived up to that,” says Boyd. “We have really pushed them on the level of access we can have, whether it is cameras in the bench area, next to the coaches, and even talking to the head coaches in their headset during the game. And the XFL has been open to it.”

A test game in January proved out many of the concepts, and Boyd says that viewers will be able to get a peek behind the curtain to see what happens on the sidelines and hear the chatter that occurs in the headsets.

For example, four players per team will be miked up during the game (most likely the QB and a skill player and the defensive play callers), and Fox will have full access to coaching communications.

“The cool thing is that the XFL will not close down communication between the coach and the quarterback at the whistle,” says Boyd. “The coach will be able to talk to the quarterback during the play, and we will have full access to that and will be able to air it. But it will be a fine line of how much is too much, given all of the football jargon.”

Also expect greater access to the communications during replay reviews.

“We’re lucky that the head of officiating for the XFL is Dean Blandino [who works for us on NFL broadcasts],” says Boyd. “We’ll be able to listen in on the replay conversations and even the conversations between officials on the field. It’s not meant to embarrass the officials but rather to show what is going on and why things are decided a certain way.”

All that access has caught the attention of some of the coaches, but Boyd says the Fox production team will make sure not to reveal too much and possibly hurt the competition and integrity of the game. But the coaches will be interviewed during the game, with Fox analysts allowed to talk to them via the headset following a key play.

The audio access will be complemented by expanded handheld RF access: RF cameras will be allowed in the bench area and also next to the coaches.

“We tested out the on-the-field RF access to see what kind of things could allow us to be on the field more,” says Boyd. One rule difference compared with the NFL is that, on kickoffs, the players are not allowed to move until the ball is caught by the receiving team. That opens up the opportunity to have a handheld on the field when the ball is kicked and then have the cameraman leave the field while the ball is in the air.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the Fox Sports production will be the director/producer combination: Chuck McDonald, who produces Fox college football, will work with Rich Russo, who directed Super Bowl LIV.

“We’re really happy to get those two guys together,” says Boyd. “They don’t get to work together so it will be interesting to merge the two different types of football production.”

Technical-services providers include Game Creek Video, whose brand-new Gridiron truck will be at the center of Fox coverage and Bravo will handle the other game. CP Communications is providing RF audio, RF video and coordination and Fox RF audio, and Riedel will provide XFL coaching and player communications. Bexel is on hand to provide the signal distribution and fiber connectivity for the XFL and Fox, and 3G Wireless will handle additional RF video demands. CenturyLink will provide fiber transmission back to Fox headquarters in Los Angeles.

“We’ve gathered some of the best football people we have,” says Boyd, “and we’re excited to see the melding of the different NFL and college football crews.”

XFL on Fox coverage kicks off on Feb. 8 from Houston’s TDECU Stadium when the Los Angeles Wildcats play the Houston Roughnecks. The next day, the Tampa Bay Vipers play the New York Guardians at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.