SOUTH BEND, Indiana – A pair of 135-foot cranes has been moved into position outside Notre Dame Stadium in preparation for the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday afternoon.
How they got there has everything to do with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and a series of meetings with his team that began about a month ago at NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut
“They really challenged us to think of the Notre Dame football broadcast differently,” NBC sports producer Rob Hyland said in a telephone interview. “They really encouraged us to use Notre Dame football on NBC as sort of the laboratory for all things television and innovation related.”
Hyland, entering his 11th season producing Notre Dame football telecasts on NBC, didn’t hold back. Having already mic’d up Brian Kelly for his locker room pep talk before every home game last season, NBCSN was elated when Kelly signed off on a series of requests for Saturday’s spring game telecast.
Doug Flutie coming down from the broadcast booth to roam with a live mic and a wireless camera a few yards behind Ian Book and the Fighting Irish offense? Go right ahead.
Using Fighting Irish Media employees and a handful of students to work behind the scenes in the production truck? Why not?
Oh, and those high-test cables crisscrossing the field with not one but two remote-controlled SkyCams, the latest one moving along the sideline to keep pace with the line of scrimmage as the primary camera position?
Have at it.
“There’s so many ‘pie in the sky’ ideas,” Hyland said of this television first. “This is one of the bigger ones.”
BREAKING THE MONOTONY
Now in his 21st year producing sports on TV, with an emphasis on football and horse racing, Hyland watches broadcasts a bit differently than the average fan.
Having played guard for the football team at Division III Williams College, he’s constantly looking for new angles and fresh approaches as he flips through the endless smorgasbord of viewing options. Far too often, he comes away disappointed.
“There’s just so many options on television now,” said Hyland, 43. “Even for me, an extremely avid sports fan, I think a lot of sports television is starting to look very similar.”
That’s why his eyes lit up when Swarbrick and Co. essentially gave NBC free rein — within reason — to make Notre Dame football stand apart even more than it already does.
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“I’ve always wanted to make Notre Dame football look and sound different than every other broadcast,” Hyland said. “There’s a lot of college football out there. The idea was to come up with a camera angle that really made the viewer a little more engaged in the action.”
The on-field SkyCam will remain at its usual height of 17 feet for Saturday’s spring game. It will continue to track the action from a safe distance behind the offensive backfield.
What could be so jarring for those viewers on Saturday is the primary vantage point coming from a sideline SkyCam suspended somewhere between 40 and 50 feet above the playing surface. Dropping the camera any lower than that would lessen the viewer experience in terms of in-play perspective and the ability to spot the action on the far side of the field.
“Technically it’s really hard to pull off,” Hyland said. “Notre Dame Stadium is not a very tall stadium. It’s low and wide as the bowl goes. Finding four points for our traditional SkyCam system was hard enough. Adding a second system that has to fly at a much higher height so the two don’t cross or crash proved to be very difficult.”
There are no plans at this point to take the sideline SkyCam into the regular season. Then again, if the feedback from Saturday’s experiment is positive, the whole way Notre Dame football is consumed on TV could change permanently.
“Jack and his team welcomed the idea of trying this out,” Hyland said. “Really this is sort of the lab in full effect. If this works well, we can create a more permanent solution for the fall in South Bend.”
INNOVATION RUNS DEEP
Don’t think for a second this is as far as Hyland has taken his broadcast brainstorming.
NBC, after all, is the network that gave us the first announcer-free NFL telecast (Jets-Dolphins in 1980) and the NFL’s first female play-by-play announcer (Gayle Sierens in 1987). Robert Hyland, Rob’s grandfather, hired a youthful Bob Costas to call Spirits of St. Louis ABA games on KMOX radio in the ‘70s.
Innovation is in Hyland’s DNA.
He has used drone-mounted cameras, for instance, on wide shots in horse racing coverage, but he isn’t quite ready to bring those into a football stadium packed with humans.
“I think drones provide great imagery,” Hyland said. “The problem with drones is the (Federal Aviation Administration) has a major issue with those things flying over human beings, I kind of agree with it. I’m not really comfortable with doing that yet.”
While the SkyCam system is supported by multiple cables and backed up with a series of security measures, drones remain susceptible to wind gusts and other potential mishaps.
What about embedding a chip-sized camera in the football itself? From his NFL days, including Thursday Night Football, Hyland knows there’s already a chip inside the game balls “with data the league has not provided to us yet.” He’d love to be able to share that real-time data with his viewers in terms of ball speed, height and distance traveled, but it doesn’t sound like a BallCam is exactly in development yet.
“You know what, never say never,” Hyland said with a laugh. “I don’t have the easy answer of how to make that happen yet, but I will sure as heck pursue it.”
Watching the experimental telecasts of the short-lived Alliance of American Football this spring only encouraged Hyland to take more chances and pursue further innovation. He muses about outfitting players with wireless microphones and taking unimpeded viewers into the replay booth, which might have been the best thing about the AAF.
“How cool was that, right?” Hyland said. “As sports gambling becomes more prevalent in our country, viewers are going to want to hear those conversations with complete transparency.”
READY FOR ANYTHING
As for potential drawbacks on Saturday, Hyland and director Pierre Moossa have their fingers crossed that Flutie and his camera person (of Notre Dame’s choosing) won’t get plowed over by some 300-pound Irish lineman.
“I’m more worried about the camera operator than I am Doug Flutie,” Hyland said. “Our Heisman Trophy winner can probably dodge a (player) if there’s an interception or change of direction. I hope our camera is ready to move around quickly if need be. I don’t know his or her measurables.”
There’s also the potential Flutie’s live mic will pick up more than the NBC folks intended as he roams from the field to the sideline huddles.
“If it gets heated down there, he’s got to either walk away from that situation or we are liable to hear some audio that we don’t want to,” Hyland said. “We’re going to be very cautious with where those microphones end up and how we use those.”
As Notre Dame’s broadcast partner, NBC will again take great pains not to compromise any privileged information or cross the line into becoming obtrusive. Flutie will likely share in-game banter with Kelly and his assistant coaches, which can only help recruiting, but he won’t be pulling Book or other players aside for pre-snap queries.
“They’ve been incredible partners with us and really have challenged us to think of the game and our broadcast differently,” Hyland said. “There’s a lot of trust in that challenge that, if we are going to provide greater access to our viewers, we’re not crossing any lines of confidentiality or putting student-athletes or coaches in a bad light.”
While spring games are typically forgotten as soon as the field is cleared, Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game is already sure to be a groundbreaking broadcast event.
“Anything to provide our viewers with greater access is going to be a win,” Hyland said. “Greater access for any sport will keep viewers engaged for a little bit longer.”
Follow Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino