The story behind football's innovative yellow first down line
The large conference room full of ESPN executives was silent as Jerry Gepner and I finished presenting a simulation of a yellow, electronic first down line for football telecasts in May 1998. Finally, the silence was broken.
"Can you really do it?" one said.
"Can you have it ready for this NFL season?" another asked.
I paused slightly, and silently gulped. "Yes, but only if we start right away," I said.
Jed Drake, the pioneering, innovative head of remote production for ESPN, replied, "If you can really do it by September, and we can do it with you exclusively, we're in." They never even asked how much it would cost.
Our company, Sportvision, had opened its doors four months earlier. Backed by several venture capital investors, with New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon as the lead, our concept was to apply advanced technology to sports media. Three of us from News Corporation and Fox Sports -- Gepner, a TV production expert, engineering guru Stan Honey and I (the business person) -- had been inspired by Stan's invention of the glowing hockey puck technology the previous year for Fox, technology which we licensed upon leaving the company in exchange for an equity interest for News Corp.
We had a long list of ideas that we felt could enhance the television experience for fans in a variety of sports. Near the top of the list was an electronic first down line, an idea that had been contemplated for many years (a patent had been filed around the concept in 1978). Fox Sports chief David Hill, one of the most creative and groundbreaking executives in the history of sports television, had mentioned it once to Stan, and John Madden had raised the idea with Jerry.
The reason why it had never been done was that no one had yet figured out how to insert, in live television, a virtual line that appeared to be under the players' feet as if it were painted on the grass -- and have that line stay in perspective as the action swirled around it and the cameras panned, tilted and zoomed. As soon as we opened for business, Stan and his small team of engineers immediately set out to determine whether they could create such a virtual line.
By early March, they felt confident it could be done. We then created a simulation tape to show the NFL broadcasters what we were proposing to do. We experimented with various colors and settled on yellow. The four NFL TV rightsholders at the time were Fox, CBS, ABC and ESPN. We presented the tape to all of them -- starting with Fox since they were a shareholder.
Hill liked the concept, of course, but Fox thought that the price, $25,000 per game, was too steep. We had set that price for a number of reasons. The hardware and operational costs would be substantial. We would have to send six people to each game along with a 48-foot semi to haul our computer and video equipment. Moreover, we felt that it was not a large figure compared to the millions of dollars per game in rights fees that each network was paying.
CBS and ABC found the simulation tape intriguing but wanted to give it some thought. Our last stop was ESPN and the reception was decidedly different. Drake and his team immediately felt that a virtual first down line would transform the football viewing experience. They saw the potential power of it and wanted to be the first network to bring it to life.
Within several days of that first meeting we had worked out the terms of a deal with ESPN. We agreed to an exclusive arrangement for the 1998 season, believing that no one else could develop a competing system before the end of the year. One sticky point was that ESPN wanted the exclusivity to run through the playoffs, even though they had no postseason games. We objected but ultimately conceded. That proved to be a mistake later.
The other key step was the approval of the NFL. While ESPN technically had the right to introduce such a broadcast enhancement, everyone felt that approval by the league would be essential. We went to see the top NFL broadcast executive, Dennis Lewin. Stan, Jerry and I were very nervous given the importance of this deal to our young company and the NFL's reputation for being very conservative when it came to anything new or different.
Luckily, Lewin had that rare combination of being both cautious and visionary at the same time. He observed right away how the yellow line would create a better viewing experience for NFL fans, and could even help young or casual fans learn the game more quickly. He imposed only three requirements. First, the line had to be thick enough that it would clearly be a viewer's guide, not the precise, definitive location for a first down. Secondly, we would have to fade it out when the referee placed the ball down, to avoid causing controversy if the line was off from the official chain markers. Finally, we could not show it in replays. Lewin's parting comment was, "I knew someone was going to do something like this eventually -- just glad they're friends," thus indicating his trust in us.
Stan confirmed that these conditions were technically easy, and ESPN agreed from the production side. We were on our way. Now it fell to Stan's engineering team to build something in four months that had previously been considered impossible.
While the line looks simple on TV, the technology behind it is very complex. Sensors were placed on the three main game cameras (at midfield and the two 20 yard lines), capturing the pan, tilt and zoom movements of those cameras 30 times a second. A three-dimensional, virtual model of each field had to be constructed, with the exact measurements of the crown of the field (the center of the field is always higher, for drainage, than the sides and ends, but the precise levels vary in each venue). An exhaustive color palette had to be produced on the fly as the game progressed, so that the green pixels of grass the yellow line replaced would be exactly the "right greens" even as shadows crossed the field and changed the grass hues -- an essential feature to assure replacing only the green blades of grass and not the green threads of a Packers or Eagles jersey.
The operation of the system was also extremely complex and had to integrate in a sophisticated and complete way with the TV broadcast. We were fortunate to have, in Jerry Gepner, the best person in the industry at pulling off this detailed integration and coordination, but it was an all or nothing proposition. Either the line would appear to stick like paint to the grass, and remain in the right spot throughout the play, or it would not go to air. Being a yard off, or having it appear on a player's jersey, or shudder slightly -- these were not options.
Our Sportvision road crew would have to arrive at the field three days before each game. Using a laser plane, they took measurements of the field and loaded them into the computers. They would run hundreds of yards of cables from the up cameras to the equipment in our truck, allowing our system to detect each camera movement so that, once inserted, we could keep the line in proper perspective as the play proceeded and the cameras panned and zoomed. They took swatches of grass at different times of day -- both before and during the games -- to enhance the color palette in each city (our crew came to love games in domed stadiums).
Our engineering team, based in Mountain View, Calif., worked around the clock through the summer to put all of the software and hardware pieces of the system together. We outfitted a full-size television truck to house the road operation. There was constant tension since there was virtually no cushion if we were to make the start of the season.
We provided regular updates to ESPN. Jed Drake could not have been more supportive and provided access to everything our team needed since a big part of the system would be a seamless integration with the ESPN production. ESPN would have to delay the broadcast by two-thirds of a second to allow us to insert the line into their feed. If the coordination was not absolutely precise in syncing with the video and audio, the line would flutter -- or worse.
Meanwhile, the whole project was kept confidential. Neither we nor ESPN wanted to say anything in order to preserve the element of surprise. We also did not want to announce it in case the feverish development effort did not make the start of the season.
As the preseason games began, we took our truck on the road, parked it next to the ESPN trucks and secretly began to test the system. There were, as everyone expected, bugs at the outset that had to be corrected. The biggest issues concerned the timing of the coordination with the broadcast feed.
The last ESPN preseason game in 1998 was in Kansas City. We hoped that would be a final dress rehearsal and if all went went we would get a green light from ESPN to launch the next weekend for the season opener. We created a separate feed of the game, coming into an ESPN trailer, which contained the line.
We all watched it intently throughout the game. It was not perfect, but it looked very good. The only issue was a slight jitter. When the game ended, we huddled with Drake to discuss the plan.
Some of us felt that it was good enough to go to air with, and its value would overcome anyone even noticing the jitter. We also obviously did not want to miss the opening weekend. Stan Honey said that the engineers could get rid of the jitter, but it would require a few weeks in the lab.
Drake wanted it to be perfect, and he felt that it was worth missing the season opener in order to nail it, and he was right. Stan's team took the system back to Mountain View and made the correction. Two weeks later we tested it again, and it was steady as a rock. We were a go for Sunday night, Sept. 27, 1998 in Baltimore for the Ravens against the Bengals.
Three days before the game, ESPN held a press briefing to announce the introduction of the yellow line. There was a small amount of skepticism from writers, but the general reaction was positive.
The telecast went smoothly, and the reviews were phenomenal. Even more telling, we heard from every network asking us about the line. We told them that we could provide it to them -- but not until the following season. That exclusivity clause extending through the playoffs came back to bite us. Fox wanted us to provide the line for the Super Bowl, which for a young company would have been an enormous step. But no matter what we offered (discounts, free games), ESPN refused to waive its rights.
We shared the Emmy award for technology with ESPN, and within several years two things happened -- the first was that the size of the system shrunk from a 48-foot, equipment-filled truck to racks about the size of four card tables that could be shipped to each venue in packing cases. With time to work on the system, the team was able to configure it in much more efficient ways, and we did not need the extensive backup equipment we hauled around that first season.
The second thing that happened, of course, was that every NFL and college telecast soon included the yellow line (the majority of telecasts still use the Sportvision technology, but there are two other companies providing the line for some games). And the line proved to be so accurate that the league removed the requirement that networks fade out the line as the referee spotted the ball.
Stan Honey, Jerry Gepner and I have heard from a lot of people over the years about the line. Among the most common comments were from men saying that it had made the game more understandable to their wives and girlfriends, and from fathers saying their children kept looking for the line on the field when they attended games. And there are people who still think it's done with lasers or disappearing paint.
Over time, Sportvision introduced many new technologies. Some, such as the ESPN K Zone and the NASCAR tracking system, were very well received. But none ever rivaled the universal enthusiasm that greeted the yellow line.