USFL Kickoff: Fox Sports and NBC Sports Producers on Creating a ‘Totally Different Kind of Football Broadcast’

Fox Sports' Chuck McDonald and NBC Sports' Matt Marvin talk USFL production

This weekend marks a new era in the broadcasting history of pro football, as the USFL kicks off in Birmingham, AL. Over the next 10 weeks, Fox Sports, which is the league’s majority owner, and fellow broadcaster NBC Sports, will present 43 games. At the front bench, both networks’ producer/director teams will be looking to think outside the box and create a broadcast that is distinct from traditional NFL coverage.

Fox Sports producer Chuck McDonald

To create this fresh take on football, Fox and NBC have pulled out all the stops when it comes to production tools and technology. Among the highlights: high-speed drones, HelmetCams on four players, dual Skycams (one behind the offense, the other 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 90’s?). Plus, the 10-week regular season looks to be the biggest Home Run Production effort Fox has ever undertaken.

NBC Sports producer Matt Marvin

CLICK HERE for SVG’s full story on USFL production ops.

In separate interviews, SVG sat down with Fox Sports producer Chuck McDonald and NBC Sports producer Matt Marvin to discuss how they plan to differentiate USFL broadcasts from NFL coverage, how they expect to integrate all these new toys into the show, and what it means to them to help build a new pro-football property from the ground up.

How are you looking to use the second Skycam differently from the way it has been used on NFL and college football broadcasts?

McDonald: We were always hoping that we would get a chance to play with the second Skycam more on college football, but we never were able to. When it has been done before in the NFL, the two Skycams are usually tethered together, which limits mobility for that second Skycam. But we were able to take that off and let it roam free. Plus, this league lets us go behind the defense, which is really valuable. We now have the ability to see things from angles that have not been seen before, which is very exciting. We’ll use that for a lot of X’s and O’s breakdown from [analyst] Joel Klatt. 

Marvin: I know two Skycams become more common for NFL and some of the big college games, but we’ll be using that second Skycam very differently. We will show you a perspective from behind the defense, which I have not seen done. It’s something that the league has allowed us to do, and we can’t wait to show [viewers].

And how do you plan to use the drone for game coverage?

McDonald: The drone is going to be very cool because of the way it moves and it’s so dynamic. I can’t wait to see it in replay sequences because I think you’re going to see a view that you haven’t seen before in football. It’s very small and totally safe, so we are able to have a lot of freedom with it. I can’t wait to see some of those angles of it hovering right near the players.
Marvin: We will be trying to use drones in coverage, and the drone they’ve developed is very safe, very small, and very fast. It looks absolutely tremendous, and we’re excited about that. Obviously, weather and things of that nature that are out of our control will be a factor from week to week, but it will be a big part of our coverage.

And how about HelmetCam?

McDonald: To be honest, the pictures were so much better than I expected with the HelmetCam technology. You have a little more leeway with something like a RefCam, where they can wear a belt pack, but, with HelmetCam, it has to consider the weight and integrity of the helmet. I was really surprised at how clear the video was and how well it meshed with our other pictures — even though they had to deal with the [constraints of the helmet]. We are going to have times when plays fall into our lap: a punt block or interception returned for a touchdown. If we have that player wearing [a HelmetCam], it’s going to be something that people genuinely haven’t seen before.

How will the new automated first-down–measuring system be integrated into the broadcast?

McDonald: It started when [Fox Sports CEO/Executive Producer and USFL Chairman] Eric Shanks asked our technical people, “Why do we still use chains in today’s world?” And guys like Fox Sports SVP, Field Operations,] Mike Davies and [Fox Sports VP, Field Operations and Engineering,] Brad Cheney figured out how do we could do this and make it accurate so it’s not a gimmick, so it’s real. But it took months of work to get there. It will be very seamless and similar to what you see in tennis when Rafa thinks the ball is out and he points up for them to check. For us, when a ref needs a measurement and it would normally be a time they would run out the chains, he’ll make the announcement and give the signal. We’ll cue the animation, and they’ll see it in the Jumbotron in the stadium, and you’ll see it on TV — just like in tennis. I’ve seen a lot of false information out there that are doing it with the chip in the ball, but it’s actually optical tracking, which is more accurate. Once the ball is set, they optically track where it is, and they know exactly whether it’s a first down or not.

How is your team approaching the audio side of things with so many players miked on the field?

Marvin: I think audio is going be the star of the show. We have 16 player mics per side, which obviously is pretty robust. We also have the ability to tap into coach comms, which is the communication between the play caller and the quarterback and the coach and play caller on the defensive side with the radio in their helmet. There is no cutoff for coach-to-player communication in the USFL like there is in the NFL, which cuts the radio with 15 seconds left. But here the communication is ongoing throughout. We’ll be able to eavesdrop on that communication. I do think the audio in the show is going to be totally different from what we’ve heard before in football, which we’re pretty excited about.

McDonald: I can’t think of another event that has had this many athletes miked up. The audio crew that came up with the plan is the same group that does Fox baseball. They are just amazing, and I’m always saying, “How the hell did they get that audio?” when I’m watching baseball. It’s the same approach here. Wherever you would want a mic, they’ve put one out there. You’ve got 16 players per team miked plus both head coaches; boom mics, parabs, and all kinds of other mics. Every player wearing a HelmetCam will also be wearing a mic. Plus, we have all the access to the team communications. I don’t think you’re ever going to say, “I wish we could hear that” during our [broadcasts]. If you want to hear it, we’re going to have it covered.

Will USFL Head of Officiating Mike Pereira be live on-air when he’s reviewing replays from the Rules Command Center in Los Angeles?

McDonald: For me, as a producer, that’s going to be one of the more interesting and exciting things. [The officiating] is going to be fully transparent. 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. When Mike stops the play or when a score happens, we can be a fly on the wall, but we can also insert ourselves. We’ll listen in at first. Mike will check with the official, and, at that point, while he’s looking and making a decision, our guys can have a conversation with him. Mike feels very comfortable with being able to do his job while also answering questions because the questions are pretty much what’s going through his mind anyway. As opposed to guessing like we do in NFL and college or asking Mike his opinion, we’re actually talking to the guy making the decision. And you’re going to see moments when Joel [Klatt] is going say, “Mike, I think you’re completely wrong.” That’s going to make for some dramatic moments. I think fans are going to be blown away — whether you agree or disagree with the call — about how we handle that on-air. I think to be totally transparent is going to stand out for people.

Marvin: We’re all familiar with Mike from Fox’s broadcast on the NFL; they’ve been very generous in lending Mike to us during our games. You’re going to hear Mike go through with the referee what he’s looking at and what he’s basing his judgment on. He is the final say. I don’t think we’ve seen that level of transparency in the officiating process, which will be pretty cool for the viewers.

The USFL has made speeding up the pace of play a big priority. How will that be reflected in the broadcast?

Marvin: We want to keep these games under three hours, and part of that is kicking off fairly quickly. We will not have a traditional studio show per se. We will kick off usually at seven minutes past the hour or half hour just to set the stage for the game and take a quick commercial. There will be an on-camera portion, a sideline report, possibly interviews, commercial, and then we’re coming back and kicking off. That is a big part of the league as well as the pace of play. If we do end early, we get some interviews postgame, and we sign off in a three-hour window. That’s the hope.

You guys will be sharing a single truck and largely the same technical crew this weekend in Birmingham. How is that going to work?

Marvin: For the opening-night game simulcast, it’s almost like musical chairs in the truck. I’ll be handling the pregame, and Chuck will be handling the game. Then I’ll jump back in for halftime and postgame. Essentially, it’s one crew with Chuck and me bouncing around and in different people’s ears. We will be in Game Creek Gridiron, which is the truck Fox uses on their college football A game, so we will have all the firepower that we need. On Sunday, my crew will jump into production for the noon game, and Chuck’s crew will jump back in for the 8 p.m. game. The game on USA Network [at 4 p.m.] will be produced out of Stamford. So this truck is going to be very busy.

How will your production philosophy and strategy for this game differ from a traditional NFL or college football game?

Marvin: We’re trying to make a concerted effort to make this look and feel and sound a little bit different than what you would see on an NFL Sunday. With that in mind, there are plenty of new and different cameras and audio [elements].

McDonald: Our number-one goal in terms of all the technology is not to force things on the air just for the sake of having them. The other part is to avoid settling into our rhythm. With the number of cool drones and HelmetCams and other cameras they’ve given me, I could run a replay sequence after every play, but sometimes the better thing is not to run a replay and to let the moment speak for itself. That’s true in a normal broadcast but even more so in this league. The [announcers] are going to have to change, too. [Play-by-play announcer] Curt [Menefee] and Joel can’t be trying to analyze every single play. We’ve got to be smart about understanding that people are going to want to just listen and be part of the moment. We want the Steadicam in the huddle; we want a shot of the coach calling in the play; we want to watch the quarterback translate that play to the players in the huddle and watch a break and listen to the audibles. We have to go out of our way to create those moments. It’s kind of relearning the rhythm of what we do. It will be a work in progress, but I think we just need to stay out of the way sometimes. People are going to feel like they’re there in the stadium when you do that. If we talk all over it, it’s just going to feel like a normal broadcast with some extra toys. But, if we allow those moments to breathe, it will feel fresh and different.

How has it been working together, and what have been some highlights of the partnership?

Marvin: The partnership with Fox has been absolutely amazing. They have been so welcoming to us, especially Mike Davies and his crew and Chuck and his crew. They’ve brought a lot of new things to the table. I just can’t tell you how accommodating they’ve been. Working with Fox and being so closely aligned has been great. I work on NASCAR with Fox as well, so there has always been a lot of commingling, but this has taken that to a higher degree because we’ve both been involved from the ground level. It’s amazing how similar our ideas and philosophies are, and everything that has spawned out of these conversations has been a lot of fun.

McDonald: It has been amazing. Eric Shanks said, if you look at the two NFL broadcasts that are the most aligned, you would probably say Sunday Night Football and America’s Game of the Week NFL. I think we had very similar philosophies before we even sat in a room together, which helped a lot. And then you look at all the personal relationships we have from sharing NASCAR, and that adds a lot. I was a freelancer at one point in my career, and I did four Olympics with NBC and worked with a lot of their people so there’s a lot of built-in relationships. I can honestly say that we’re treating this like one network we’re all on the same team. We’re not hiding anything from each other or keeping any secrets. We’re just sharing all the info, all the technology, and all our ideas. We are sharing the truck, and, during the scrimmages, when we weren’t in the chair, we were sitting in the room and throwing out ideas. I think this is truly a simulcast approach where we’re very aligned and we’re going to work together, That’s going to be true this weekend and all season long.

How excited are you to be part of launching a brand-new league with this much TV exposure?

Marvin: It’s incredibly exciting for me and our whole team. First of all, it’s a brand-new league, which I’ve never experienced in my career, and not many people get that kind of opportunity. Everyone involved is really proud of all we’ve done and excited to get the season going. I think we are going to give people a totally different kind of football broadcast than they’ve ever seen before.  

McDonald: Other startups haven’t been able to be on network TV as much as we are or have the technology we have. No one has ever done what we’re doing. To be in this industry and to get to do something brand new and be involved on the ground floor during the ideas stage is amazing. Having bosses like Eric Shanks that are open to ideas and giving anything we ask for in terms of technology has been amazing. It feels a bit like when we took over NASCAR, which was a collaboration between a lot of the Fox NFL [production] teams. If you go back and look how NASCAR was being covered before Fox did it, Fox totally changed the way it was done. And that was true for the NFL when they took over in the ’90s. This is a new opportunity to change the way football is covered. I couldn’t be more excited about it. What we’re doing is unprecedented, and I don’t know of anybody who has ever had this opportunity. No one has never 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 what we do as the season goes on because it’s just going to get better.”

These interviews were conducted separately and have been edited for length and clarity

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