NFL training camps go high-tech

By Carolyn Braff
Each year, franchises in the National Football League pump millions of dollars into the latest training gadgets and advances in stadium design in hopes of gaining a technological leg up on their opponents. But for a few weeks each summer, these tech-savvy professional football teams leave behind their digital video equipment and head to a low-tech college campus for training camp. When this annual return to the proverbial Stone Age brought more frustration than nostalgia to teams like the Carolina Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers, they turned to DVSport Software for help.

“They want to take a network with them to training camp, have the computers connected, and be able push practices out to players and coaches,” explains Brian Lowe, president of DVSport software. “What we’ve provided is solutions whereby they can take the network on the road.”

The technological limitations of sites like Lehigh University (home of the Philadelphia Eagles’ training camp) and Wofford College (home of the Panthers’ training camp) used to mean lugging countless tape-filled duffel bags in order to record practices and drills. Using DVSport software, teams take their home network to their off-site training facilities, allowing for a more efficient, digitized training camp experience.

“Training camp is now much more effective,” Lowe says. “In years past, you would be waiting an hour or more to get access to today’s practice, and that affects your time between practices. Now you’re able to watch video in between practices, as well as access it earlier at the end of that first practice.”

DVSport software allows coaches and players to quickly search and access video and data to assist in practice evaluation and opponent scouting. The flexibility of the system makes relocating a team’s network as easy as finding a power outlet.

“Essentially, we rack mounted the server in a case, unplugged it, connected it to our network in the dormitory, and we were up and running in 15 minutes,” says Bob McCartney, video coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. For McCartney, network mobility is essential to team operations. “We are a traveling road show. Last year, we were on the road for five straight weeks, and without DVSport, I don’t know if we could have done it.” During Super Bowl week, the team needed to access video files at both their hotel and inside meeting rooms at the Silverdome. Lowe cloned the Steelers’ server, so that the two identical servers could run simultaneously from different locations.

“It took us 24 hours to copy the media, but other than that, it was seamless,” McCartney says.

Changing technology
McCartney formerly used a server provided by XOS Technologies, and although he had the capability to pack up the server and transport it, he did not feel comfortable moving the equipment the way he does with the DVSport system.

In a grueling training camp schedule of two-a-day practices and countless meetings, time is not something coaches can afford to waste, so Lowe created the most time-efficient software on the market.

“We get done with our practices during training camp unbelievably fast,” says Patrick Dolan, video coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, who hold training camp in their regular-season facility. At the end of last season, the Browns also switched from a system provided by XOS Technologies to the DVSport package. “Let me put it this way: some of the coaches may not even be in the shower before the media is all on the network and available to them. It’s not like we were super slow last year, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The Browns use Ikegami cameras from Non Linear Technology (NLT) to record practices directly onto hard drives, using NLT Field Paks. The Field Pak adaptors connect directly to team computers, and once logged into the DVSport network, video personnel can import the master clips onto the server. The USB connection means a faster importing time than was previously available, and the network’s AVI video format allows for more efficient renaming and searching capabilities.

“Twenty minutes after practice is over, we’ve got everything marked,” McCartney says. “It’s instantaneous.”

Although the Steelers still use a tape system as a backup, having the digital server with them at St. Vincent College gives coaches access to searchable footage from every NFL game played in 2005, an invaluable tool as they scout both preseason and regular season opponents.

“In the old days, we would have to go back into Pittsburgh and look through the library for a tape,” McCartney says. “Now we can call it up and open the file and make it work. That’s what’s really made life a little easier here.”

At many of the less technologically-inclined colleges where NFL teams hold training camp, recreating a digital network is easier said than done.

“Some of these guys are at a college that might not have as much technology as they have in their own facility,” Lowe explains. “We still need the hardwire infrastructure within the building. The technology is a bit of a challenge when you’re interfacing with a third party.”

Just the basics
The Philadelphia Eagles is one of several NFL teams which, on account of those third-party restrictions, run training camps the old-fashioned way.

“Because we’re in five different buildings, it wouldn’t be feasible to do digital here,” says Mike Dougherty, video director for the Eagles. “If you’re in a high-rise, then you could wire the building.”

While in Philadelphia, the Eagles rely on an XOS digital editing system, but at training camp in Bethlehem, PA, the team uses more basic technology.

“We use basically a cut-down betacam system, so our technology up here is really not anything state-of-the-art,” Dougherty says. “We’re old school.”

The Eagles return to their home practice facility after their first pre-season game, so their short time at camp is focused on assessing player skills, not scouting opponents.

“Training camp is an evaluation process of the players themselves, not so much the schemes that the other teams use,” Dougherty adds.

For those teams who do remain at their training camp facility throughout the preseason, DVSport provides a considerate scouting advantage, as the network allows coaches to prepare for opponents digitally, as they do during the regular season.

“With digital, once you have it in one place, everyone can see it instantaneously,” Lowe says. “It’s much cleaner and more streamlined.”

Whether streamlined training camps lead to Super Bowl rings has yet to be determined, but at the very least, video coordinators using DVSport software can now work efficiently enough to leave the editing room in time to enjoy the college dining hall food along with everyone else.

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