RF Wireless Systems Kept CFL Sound Up Close and Personal This Season

Canadian supplier is affected by spectrum reallocation in the U.S.

The Canadian Football League’s season came to an end on Sunday when the Calgary Stampeders defeated the Ottawa Redblacks 27-16 in the 106th Grey Cup in Edmonton, AB’s Commonwealth Stadium, telecast nationally in Canada on TSN.

However, what Canadian football fans had enjoyed during one game a week all season was missing: miking on each team’s starting and backup quarterbacks and head coaches, the close-up sound that has become integral to NFL broadcasts and to those of most other major-league sports on television. That, however, was the plan for the Grey Cup all along.

“We never had plans to use it this year during playoffs or Grey Cup,” says Paul Graham, VP/EP, TSN. “Our existing agreement with the league and the CFLPA [player’s agreement] called for 18 weeks of regular season, one game per week. We skip the first two weeks and end a week before playoffs. The idea was to give teams the first couple of weeks to get some rhythm and to stop a week before so they could focus on playoffs.”

Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell hoists the Grey Cup after the Calgary Stampeders defeated the Ottawa Redblacks to win the 2018 championship.

The Canadian players’ miked-up season, which they have dubbed “Live Mic,” drew the same kind of raves that the NFL’s on-field audio has elicited for the last few years. However, the CFL takes a somewhat different approach to wiring field participants for sound. Where the NFL affords broadcasters access to a signal that is available a few seconds prior to the snap and a few seconds after it, the CFL leaves its player and coach mics on throughout the game, with the quarterbacks’ “hot” the entire game: on field, in huddles, and at the scrimmage line. All the audio is on a five-second delay to give censors a chance to catch any profanity (a move Graham says was especially useful with the coaches’ audio)

The sound is monitored from a central location at Dome Productions, the production division of Bell Media, in Toronto, according to Rob Bunn, president, RF Wireless Systems, the Live mics and RF cameras supplier for Dome Productions, which in turn supplies broadcaster TSN with facilities, crew, and production services.

“You’re able to listen in to the conversations and debates between coaches and players throughout the game, which adds a new dimension to the audio,” he says, adding that ambient audio is available to minimize any dropout effect caused by muting the player audio.

RF Wireless paired Sennheiser lavalier microphones with Quantum5X PlayerMic transmitters for the close-up sound this season. Bunn says the transmitters’ ability to be remotely controlled and monitored, for such parameters as battery-power level and radio-frequency changes, was important for the extended time that on-field audio was used for CFL games.

In fact, that capability has become increasingly important in the wake of the RF reallocation in the U.S. this year. Bunn points out that, even though Canada didn’t participate in the recent RF auction that cleared most of the 600 MHz range, Canadian broadcasters nonetheless had to abide by its outcome and purchase new wireless audio systems.

“We had to retool,” he says, adding, “and we had to do it without any government [subsidization].”

Bunn says input from viewers regarding the extended audio this season has been extremely positive, suggesting that this could become the norm for the league’s broadcast audio. “It gets you in close like nothing else can.”

Graham echoes that assessment, noting that the league and the broadcaster will discuss different options in the off-season to improve the audio experience for next year: “Overall, we’re all very happy with the results of the Live Mic concept.”

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