A company called FreeD—promoted in part by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban—could change the way games are officiated forever.
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In January 2015, Indiana athletic director Fred Glass went through a ritual almost as old as college itself: asking a wealthy alum for money. Glass flew to Dallas Love Field airport to meet billionaire Mark Cuban, owner of the Mavericks, technology investor and star of ABC’s Shark Tank. Cuban walked into a conference room in the Jet Linx terminal wearing a T-shirt and gym shorts.
The two men attended Indiana at the same time, almost four decades ago, but Glass knew this was not the moment to reminisce or make small talk. Cuban does not care for long backstories or PowerPoint presentations. Make your pitch fast or he’ll move on.
Glass had written three points that he wanted to make on a three-by-five index card. Halfway through his second point, Cuban put his hands up, as if to say: Enough. He looked up at the ceiling.
“I could get behind that,” Cuban said. “I’ll give you $5 million.”
This was startling—not just because of the quick sale, but also because $5 million was the exact amount that Glass had planned to request. Glass quickly ended the meeting (“I wanted to get out of there before he changed his mind”), and the Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology was born.
If you attend a basketball game at IU’s famed Assembly Hall, you may notice a series of 28 holes in the walls surrounding the court. What’s behind them is the idea that won Cuban over so quickly and may represent the next technological revolution in sports—affecting not only how we watch games but also how teams prepare for them and, most compellingly, how leagues officiate them.
If you’ve ever gotten mad at a game official, you should hear the story of Al Pereira. He was a head linesman in the 1960s and ’70s who worked some Division I college football games. His son Mike followed Al into the profession and made it all the way to the NFL, eventually becoming the league’s vice president of officiating—a thankless job.
Sometimes Al would call Mike with words of encouragement such as, “Your officials suck.”
And, Al would add, “We were so much better.”
Mike would tell his father the truth: “You think you were better—only because there was no video to show how much worse you were.”
Even when there was video in the ’70s, it was often black and white, fuzzy and grainy—viewers couldn’t tell if a foot was out-of-bounds, because they couldn’t even be sure if it was a foot. Cable, satellite and high-definition cameras changed that. Now all four major sports leagues use instant replay as part of their officiating process.
The net result of all this progress is that we feel as if we’ve gone backward. Fans act a lot like Al Pereira did. They expect every call to be made correctly, and they see enough on video to know that’s not the case.
Blown calls are such a hot topic in the NBA that the league releases a Last Two Minute Report for all games that were within five points at the two-minute mark, as well as the last two minutes of regulation plus any extra periods of overtime games. After the Thunder beat the Spurs 98–97 in a May 2 playoff game, the NBA acknowledged eight officiating mistakes in the final two minutes, causing a firestorm.
“It is a dilemma because it’s raised the ire of the fans, who now see that officials make mistakes—which they always have,” Mike says. “There wasn’t this drive for perfection back in the day. Now the expectation is that officials are supposed to be right 100% of the time. And that’s not real. They’re humans. And just like players make mistakes and coaches make mistakes, officials make mistakes.”
But what if more of those mistakes got fixed? What if a system gave us the exact view we wanted, all the time? An instant replay that would actually be ready in an instant? What if we could stop to get a call right, without feeling like we were slowing the game down even more?
Go down to Bloomington, and you get a sense of how that might happen. Behind those little holes at Assembly Hall, and about 30 similar ones that will be made this summer at the Hoosiers’ football stadium, are cameras that record everything that happens in the game in 5K resolution—five times as sharp as standard definition. Computers break down the images into voxels (3-D pixels) and the view from any point on the court or field can be re-created into a three-dimensional, 360-degree video of the action.
How could this help officials? Well, consider this crucial play in the most recent College Football Playoff championship game: With 1:22 left, Alabama handed the ball to Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry on third-and-goal from the Clemson one. On-field officials ruled it a touchdown, but it was not clear if Henry’s progress was stopped before he crossed the goal line; 360 replay would have been definitive. Think of how many times you have seen a running back fumble as his knee goes down—and from one angle you can see the ball but not the knee, and from another you can see the knee but not the ball. What if you could see both at the same time?
“If you can go to a kind of technology like 360 that shows it at the exact same moment from another frame, then you’ve really accomplished something,” says Mike Pereira, who is now Fox’s rules analyst. “That’s one of the things we will see in the future. Split-screen it: ‘Here is the knee, here is the ball.’ ”
This should help virtually every sport. Hoops refs should be able to get every goaltending call correct, for one. Hockey goals, offsides and crease violations will be easier to detect.
The technology, which is called FreeD and was pioneered by an Israeli company called Replay Technologies, is in only a dozen stadiums worldwide. It is not yet ready for use in officiating because it takes more than two minutes to generate the replay, which would delay games even more. But the system gets faster every year—two years ago, it took 20 minutes to generate a replay—and some tech investors think FreeD is the next big thing in sports. In March, Intel bought Replay Technologies for its immersive sports division; news reports tabbed the deal at $175 million.
Because 360 is so new, only a few people know how to use it, which is where the Cuban Center comes in. Training students to use this technology, as well as learning about sports broadcasting and virtual reality, Cuban says via email, is his way of giving back to his alma mater.
Of course, Cuban’s frustration with NBA officiating is well-documented, and he has already seen one potential use for FreeD cameras: “Being able to rotate high-resolution video will speed up replays considerably and add to their accuracy.” The NBA has fined Cuban almost $2 million for various outbursts over the years. His $5 million investment in the Cuban Center may save him money down the road.
If Intel 360 replay technology sounds both new and familiar, there is a reason: Turner and ESPN used it in the NBA playoffs for the first time—conveniently, three of the four conference finals arenas (in Toronto, Cleveland and Oakland) featured FreeD cameras. For Super Bowl 50, CBS touted something they called EyeVision, but the cameras at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., were also using FreeD technology.
These cameras were designed, primarily, to improve the entertainment experience. It’s now common to be able to tune in to games on the other side of the world in Ultra HD from the comfort of your living room, so you might think sports telecasting has gone as far as it can go. But as Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” And if you are old enough to remember when that song was released, you should probably grab the nearest railing so you don’t fall down reading the next few sentences.
By 2018 you may be able to watch an entire Warriors game from the perspective of Steph Curry.
Or from the perspective of ... the ball.
Of course, trying to follow the path of a bouncing, spinning ball doesn’t sound very appealing, but it would be possible in this brave new pixelated world.
Meanwhile, teams will be able to use the video to refine their film sessions and analytics reports. Cuban says he expects to use the technology, along with virtual reality, to help the Mavericks next season. Players will have a clearer view than ever before of what went wrong, and why.
For fans, though, the biggest change may be with officiating. The best-case scenario is that clear replays will be available from almost any angle in seconds. It’s plausible that balls and strikes would be called more consistently than they are now. That seems far-fetched. But once, so did the whole idea of instant replay.
The NFL began using instant replay in 1986. The only plays that were subject to review were those where possession was in question, out-of-bounds plays and “easily detectable” infractions, like too many men on the field.
Still, that seemingly simple system was an idea ahead of its time. Early iterations were marred by delays and mistakes (one on-field official famously heard a replay official say “pass is complete” when he actually said “pass incomplete”) and after the 1991 season, the NFL shelved the idea.
Replay returned for good in ’99. George Young, the former Giants GM who had opposed replay from the beginning, worked in the league office at that point, and he had a folder on his desk devoted to the new system. It was marked THE MONSTER GROWS. “Decades later he is right,” says Pereira. “The monster grows. And it’s not gonna stop growing.”
Young, like many others of his time, feared that replay would rob sports of “the human element.” Pereira gets a little wistful when he thinks of what will be lost. He expects the chains that measure first downs to be replaced by technology at some point, but he doesn’t love the idea. “There are certain inaccuracies when you’re just trying to line something up,” he acknowledges. “I get it, and it will win me over at some point. But there is just that anxious moment when guys trot out on the field and extend this chain to see if it’s a first down. I love the tradition of it.”
Still, nobody reveres football history more than Bill Belichick. And the Patriots’ coach has been asking for more replay. Belichick wants four cameras in each end zone, and he has proposed that coaches be allowed to challenge any play for any reason. (Right now some calls are not reviewable.)
The monster grows because the public wants it to grow. If there was any charm in calls being missed because of “the human element,” most fans have forgotten it. These days we want officials to see everything right away. They can’t. But if a system of cameras could do it quickly and seamlessly . . . well, we could all get behind that.