Close-Up Sound Enhances Connection Between Athlete and Fan
Use of mics on players, in golf cups, and in the outfield grass is expanding
Close-up and on-player audio — also known as miked-up sound — is transitioning from a novelty used for special events to an integral part of regular broadcast-sports audio. It’s still subject to an array of controls, including by leagues and teams, and even individual athletes, but it has become clear that viewers are responding to this new level of sonic intimacy.
Microphones have been nestled in the shoulder pads of NFL guards and buried in the dirt and grass around MLB pitcher’s mounds and infields. NBA jerseys have an inside pocket specifically for wireless transmitters. The cockpits of NASCAR and IndyCar racers are wired like a Russian embassy.
“Sounds of the Game”-type packages have become regular features on sports broadcasts, where A1s and effects submixers get to do the equivalent of drum solos, playing edited pastiches of bat cracks, engine roars, and teammates’ high fives.
Broadcast-audio engineers have embraced close-up sound for games as a way to move viewers even closer to the action and the athletes.
“You’re hearing players in a way you never could before,” says Dan Bernstein, senior audio specialist for ESPN and A1 for the network’s Sunday Night Baseball. He recalls listening to Minnesota Twins slugger Logan Morrison grunt after missing a pitch during a preseason game this year: “It was powerful. He was talking with the announcers, and then you hear this huge grunt as he swings.”
It was, says Bernstein, its own kind of story.
Up Close and Personal Audio
The trend toward more-comprehensive sound for broadcast sports stems from increased fascination with the sounds of sport, says Paul Johnson, CEO of Quantum 5X, the Canadian company behind the PlayerMic, the compact transmitter that was the first bespoke piece of equipment for wiring athletes for sound.
“I played first base when I was growing up, and, when I hear the sounds from the infield on the air, it takes me back to a place in my mind where I’m almost in the game again,” he recalls. “The sounds are what makes it so real.”
Q5X has put microphones in more places than the CIA, including inside golf-hole cups, where they can pick up bits of strategic and tactical conversations between golfers and caddies, and even on buoys, collecting the sound of oars digging into the water in sculling competitions.
The pinnacle of placement is on the athletes themselves, although some players, teams and leagues have approached the concept cautiously. The NBA was the first to embrace the idea of wired athletes, and audio from the court has shown up on player websites and other portals. MLB has been the most enthusiastic recent user of onfield sound, first for event-type games, such as the All-Star Game, and, as of last year, during certain regular-season games, with individual players miked and, in a few cases, their conversations with announcers aired (on a slight delay, of course).
The NFL has been using onfield audio for years, starting in 1975 with a wireless lapel microphone and transmitter on a referee, broadcasting his calls over the stadium PA system. Beginning in the 1990s, a wireless mic was placed on umpires (by the game’s broadcasters, according to NFL Films) and could catch the quarterback cadences ahead of the snap. But, prior to the 2010 season, the umpire’s position was moved because of safety concerns. That left a noticeable hole in the sound, which, after several seasons’ worth of experimentation, was filled by wireless mics on various players — two defensive and two offensive — per game.
The NFL was the first league to formally address on-player audio in its collective-bargaining agreement with players, starting with the 2011 CBA. However, the league’s restrictions on the use of onfield sound are considered the strictest in the major leagues: the NFL owns and controls the microphones and the audio captured ahead of scrimmages on the field, feeding the output of its own signal path and audio console to broadcasters airing the games. Broadcast networks generally manage the close-up audio for MLB and NBA, with league oversight. (The main concern is profanity, which can trigger an FCC fine, but inadvertent divulging of strategy is also an issue.)
But football is feeling pressure to make more close-up sound available. In September, SI reported that Monday Night Football broadcaster ESPN Lead Producer Jay Rothman and Coordinating Director Chip Dean met with NFL broadcast executives to advocate for more access to onfield audio, citing the strides that the NBA and MLB have made with it. And this past season, the Canadian Football League and broadcaster TSN had as many as six microphones — on both teams’ starting and backup quarterbacks and head coaches — on continuously for most of the season.
“Once viewers hear that kind of close-up sound.” says Johnson, “they’ll miss it when it’s not there anymore.”
This new level of intimate athletic audio, says Karl Malone, director of sound design, NBC Sports and Olympics, “is already [such] an integral part of NFL quarterback audibles that its absence in college football leaves a hole, in my opinion. We noticed this particularly in our Dolby Atmos workflow for NBC’s Notre Dame coverage. We have painted this beautiful audio-design soundscape, which opened up above you and the field-of-play effects, which you want to fold in around you. [But it] lacks that audible, close-up field presence that would have perfected the experience.”
The Rights Stuff
On-player audio has been addressed in broadcast-contract negotiations with leagues and player associations in the past and has been codified in CBAs, such as the NBA’s 2017 player contract, which stipulated, among other things, that “upon request by the Team, the NBA, or a League-related entity, the Player shall wear a wireless microphone during any game or practice, including warm-up periods and going to and from the locker room to the playing floor. The rights in any audio captured by such microphone shall belong to the NBA or a League-related entity and may be used in any manner for publicity or promotional purposes.”
Brad Cheney, VP, field operations and engineering, Fox Sports, says this kind of content will continue to be part of the package for broadcast-rights agreements.
“As the rights deals and the contracts with the players and officials come up, [that audio] becomes a bigger part of how we present the sport,” he says. “Every player, every official, team, and league has to have a say in what audio gets collected, what microphones are used and where they’re placed, and where it goes — and where it doesn’t go. Those are real challenges.”
Building Trust Is Essential
Broadcasters want, hope, and expect close-up sound to continue to become more widely used, although they’re aware of the array of proscriptions around it. A1 Bernstein cites the costs involved in the wireless equipment and personnel to manage it, which he says will limit its deployment to the major networks’ main weekly A games during the regular season, as well as postseason play. It’s a matter not of technology, he says, but rather of the willingness of players, teams, and leagues.
Malone concurs: “It should become a regular part of painting the audio soundscape, but we are not going to be able to get every athlete or federation/association/league to agree to having mics on athletes or mics on every apparatus.”
He cites the new bond between network audio professionals and athletes this has unexpectedly created. “We are asking to enter an individual’s personal space,” he explains. “Athletes need to know they can trust us with their audio and with them forgetting the mic is on and saying things they would not want the public to hear.”
Malone notes the 2017 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile race, where Good Magic jockey Jose Ortiz’s emotional burst of gratitude after crossing the finish line punctuated the two-year-old’s first-ever win, as a graphic example. “The relationships that NBC A1s and A2s have built up with the jockeys have made it possible to have us put RF mics on some of the jockeys’ racing vests and ultimately get outstanding battle sounds and impassioned dialog between jockey and horse.”
The Future, Up Close
Ironically, the future of on-field audio might eventually extend to the venue itself. Cheney foresees the possibility that Wi-Fi–enabled stadiums will allow fans in the stands to tune into dedicated channels of players and officials audio streams. It would, in a way, bring it all full circle.
“As a kid, I remember going to Yankees games and seeing people with an AM radio stuck to their ear, listening to the broadcast announcer calling the game,” he remembers. “The more that’s available for consumers, no matter where they are, drives people to watch and experience what’s honestly the greatest reality show in history.”