Legends Behind the Lens: Stan Honey
The "Neil Armstrong" of sports television changed on-screen graphics forever
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
By Jason Dachman
The 1st & Ten line on football telecasts. K-Zone and pitch-tracking on baseball. Car-tracking pointer graphics on NASCAR. LiveLine course markers on the America’s Cup. And anything dubbed “augmented reality” on sports TV. Today, these elements are fixtures that fans have come to expect in live sports telecasts, but none of the technologies would exist had it not been for Stan Honey. The master innovator and co-founder of Sportvision has helped change the way fans watch sports, creating unique augmented-reality tools that illuminate hard-to-see moments and allow the production team to better tell the story playing out on the field.
“Every time we’ve created a successful system, it has taken something that is hard to see, important to the game, and occurs often, and then we superimposed a graphic to make it easy to see,” he explains. “We want to make it easier to see and understand those invisible but important and frequent moments.”
Of course, Honey’s achievements go well beyond the realm of sports media. He is one of the most decorated navigators in sailing and, early in his career, pioneered the first-ever vehicle-navigation system.
“Stan Honey’s influence and legacy in the sports-broadcasting industry is absolutely immense,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and Fox Sports founding President David Hill. “What Stan has done — from the glowing puck to the 1st & 10 line to tracking NASCAR [stock cars] in a three-dimensional space — has totally changed the viewer experience. Stan’s inventive, curious mind has left an indelible legacy on sports production — both in the U.S. and around the world.”
From Navigator and Innovator to the Father of Vehicle Navigation
The son and godson of navigators, Honey was born in Pasadena, CA, in 1955, and grew up in San Marino sailing dinghies, as well as showing an early passion for engineering by constructing homemade ham radios. By the time he was a teenager, he was navigating large yachts in races ranging from Mexico to Hawaii.
He opted to attend Yale for his undergraduate degree — largely because it had the best sailing team in the country — and earned a BS in engineering and applied science. While helping Yale continue to dominate the sport, Honey also began to sail professionally and quickly developed a reputation as one of the most gifted navigators around.
After graduating, he began work as a research engineer at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), continuing to sail and navigate professionally as well as earning his MSEE at Stanford. During this period, renowned entrepreneur — and ATARI founder — Nolan Bushnell tapped him to navigate his maxi yacht in the 1983 Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, a race in which he was first to finish. With Bushnell’s backing and encouragement, Honey founded Etak (a Polynesian navigational term), which would pioneer the first car-navigation system using map-matching technology (once GPS became available, all vehicle navigation systems continued to use the map-matching tech created by ETAK in conjunction with GPS).
“I think Stan embodies the ultimate marriage between technical innovation and content awareness. And he is the perfect harmony between curiosity and wisdom,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and frequent collaborator Geoffrey Mason. “The reason he’s so successful at whatever he does is, he makes sure he understands the needs of his colleagues. That has been true whether in his early days as [vehicle-navigation] innovator, as a navigator in sailing, or creating animations to illustrate the action in an America’s Cup race.”
Honey’s News Corp. Era Begins
In 1989, Honey sold Etak to Rupert Murdoch for roughly $35 million and continued to run it under News Corp. ownership. He also found his way into the media business.
“One of the advantages I had going to a liberal-arts school like Yale for an engineering education was that I also learned to speak and write pretty well,” says Honey. “So the executives [at News Corp.] realized that, even though I was an engineer, I could also explain technology in a way they could understand. At the time, there were a lot of confusing new technologies and terms in the media industry: encryption, digital, internet, conditional access. I ended up spending half my time helping the other chief executives tangling with these technical issues.”
When News Corp. sold Etak to Sony in 1996, Honey stayed on as News Corp.’s EVP of technology, a role he says he struggled with since “I enjoy building things and a corporate role like that was really frustrating because I wasn’t building anything.”
Nonetheless, he took on several major projects during his six years in the role, including managing development of conditional-access systems for Sky and DirecTV. It was also during this period that Honey first came into contact with Hill.
“David and I became friends, and he asked me to have lunch with him every week or so to brief him on the latest in technology that could impact sports broadcast,” recounts Honey. “At one of these lunches, I told Hilly that it was just barely technically possible with the most powerful computers available to compute graphics quickly enough to insert them with correct positioning into live video of the real world. His eyes lit up.”
The Glowing Puck: A One-Timer in Sports-TV Innovation
In 1994, Fox Sports had just acquired the rights to the NHL and was looking for unique production elements that could attract new viewers to the property. Hill proposed virtually inserting a glowing light over the puck and a trail behind it.
“When we first got hockey,” says Hill, “the problem that I saw was that you couldn’t see the puck. Hockey aficionados would say, ‘Don’t be so ridiculous.’ But regular folks could not see the puck, and we were trying to build the ratings. The only person I knew that I could trust with this was Stan Honey, a certified genius.”
Honey estimated that a project this bleeding-edge would cost roughly $2 million and take two years. Murdoch and Hill gave him the go-ahead, and Honey went to work, recruiting several of his Etak engineering colleagues, who would go on to become core members of the Sportvision (and later AC LiveLine) technical team: Rick Cavallaro, J.R. Gloudeman, Tim Heidmann, Ken Milnes, and Marv White.
“Stan was the Neil Armstrong of Fox Sports. He made us believe that getting to the moon would be hard but absolutely possible. As a world-class navigator who had sailed around the world, Stan helped us understand how time and spatial relationships work. What Stan was doing then is known as augmented reality today; we just didn’t have a name for it in those formative years.” – Fox Sports CEO/Executive Producer Eric Shanks
“Stan was the Neil Armstrong of Fox Sports. He made us believe that getting to the moon would be hard but absolutely possible,” says current Fox Sports President/COO/Executive Producer Eric Shanks, who worked on the FoxTrax project. “As a world-class navigator who had sailed around the world, Stan helped us understand how time and spatial relationships work. What Stan was doing then is known as augmented reality today; we just didn’t have a name for it in those formative years.”
In addition to putting the Etak band back to together, Honey enlisted the help of Fox Sports VP, Operations, Jerry Gepner to help properly integrate the solution into live production.
“This was the first time that someone had treated television content as data — and that changed everything,” says Gepner. “Since Stan wasn’t a TV guy, he could look at the problem and see that it was just data, and you can manipulate data however you need. He brought a wealth of knowledge about technology, and he had the ability to think about how these technologies could be applied to solve problems in broadcasting. That’s what made him, and still makes him, such a rare individual.”
In 1996, Fox debuted the FoxTrax glowing puck to much fanfare at the NHL All-Star game — on schedule and at a development cost of $2.2 million (CLICK HERE for an in-depth look at the development of the glowing-puck system).
“During that period in which Stan invented the [glowing-puck] technology, the NHL has never had higher ratings — proving that, if you can see the puck, people will come,” says Hill. “Unfortunately, when the NHL left Fox to go to ESPN, that was the end of the glowing puck, but it was the start of Sportvision.”
Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and former Fox Sports President Ed Goren says, “Stan Honey was, and is, a true genius. He was far beyond anything Hill and I could understand. The technology that Stan developed for the glowing puck became the foundation for all [virtual-graphics] technology on television in the future. This was a game-changer for everything from NFL to NASCAR television coverage because you were able to follow and identify [elements] of the game graphically that you never could before.”
The Birth of Sportvision: AR Before There Was AR
Says Honey, “Almost everything that we did later was brainstormed in those early days during the glowing-puck project.”
Chief among those brainstormed ideas was the concept of inserting a virtual line on a football field to illustrate the yardline in which the offense had to reach for a first down. Although Hill was the first to suggest the idea of the 1st & Ten line (his name is on the patent), News Corp. was not in the financial position to undertake another costly project. So Honey and Murdoch agreed to a deal in which Honey would start his own company with licenses to all his patents — as well as all the equipment and staff used in the glowing-puck project — in exchange for giving News Corp. 10% equity in the company.
In January 1998, Honey teamed with Gepner and Bill Squadron, who had been VP of business development at News Corp., to launch Sportvision. Although Murdoch was unable to offer operating income for the venture, the new company was able to raise funds from Roy Disney (whose maxi yacht Honey was navigating at the time) and New York Mets majority owner and real estate magnate Fred Wilpon (an acquaintance of Squadron’s).
“Giving fans a new appreciation for sports was his vision at Sportvision,” says White. “Working with Stan was sharing in that vision and realizing it by taking on daunting challenges that others could barely imagine. It has been a pleasure and an education to work with Stan as he pulled together people, resources, and support. Stan personally participated at every level. The long hours, apprehension that we were attempting the impossible, and exhilaration in our successes are all very fond memories of working with Stan in the early days — and the later days, for that matter; it doesn’t really stop with Stan.”
The 1st & Ten Line: A New Era in Televised Football
During the 1998 NFL preseason, ESPN and Sportvision debuted the 1st & Ten line. Not only did it mark one of the most significant innovations in the history of sports television, but the fact that it was on ESPN and not Fox provided Sportvision evidence of independence, according to Honey.
“We knew early on at ESPN that technology could help differentiate our presentation from our competitors. If these powerful new [virtual-graphics] systems could help the viewer understand their sport better, we were all-in,” says Jed Drake, then SVP/Executive Producer, ESPN. “Stan was, of course, the lead technology person behind all these enhancements. But here’s the key: putting aside his tremendous intellect, he’s a great project leader. He speaks the language of production people and engineers equally well. As for Stan and ESPN? Perfect timing. Perfect marriage.”
Sportvision Hits Its Stride: PITCHf/x, RACEf/x, and More
Following the success of the 1st & Ten Line, Sportvision continued to innovate in other sports. In 2000, Honey and Drake worked together once again to launch the PITCHf/x virtual strike-zone graphic on ESPN’s MLB coverage. A year later, the company launched RACEf/x for NASCAR on FOX, with virtual pointers indicating where the leaders were, even if they were in the middle of the pack having lapped other cars. And shortly thereafter came GOLFf/x for golf coverage and much more.
“Stan’s accomplishments in the broadcast industry are unparalleled,” says Drake. “No one has had a greater impact on sports broadcasting through technological advancement. [The elements he has created] have fundamentally changed the coverage of their respective sports. Pioneer is an overused word. So is genius. But neither is overused in Stan’s case.”
The Call of the Ocean: Honey Turns to Sailing Full-Time
By the mid 2000s, Sportvision had firmly established itself as the leader in augmented-graphics technology for live sports coverage. Although Honey had continued navigating professionally part-time, the pull of the sea became too much. In 2004, he was offered the chance to navigate a yacht in the Volvo Ocean Race, the pinnacle round-the-world yacht race.
“At the time, I was 50, and I knew I would be the oldest guy in the whole event,” he says. “I figured that, if I didn’t do it, I was never going to get another chance. And we ended up winning. It was a wonderful team and a great experience. I had expected to get back in technology after that, but I kept getting great opportunities in sailing.”
AC LiveLine: Sports Broadcasting Pulls Him Back In
Honey sailed full-time for the next six years before his two greatest passions — sailing and technology — collided in 2010 when Larry Ellison’s Oracle Team USA won the America’s Cup and brought it back to the U.S. Ellison, whom Honey had navigated for in the ’90s, sought Honey’s services in an effort to bring to sailing the same augmented-reality tech that he had introduced for so many other sports.
“I warned [Ellison] that it was going to be very expensive and that I didn’t think it made any economic sense for sailing, but Larry said, ‘Let’s do it,’” remembers Honey. “It was the hardest project, by far, of any project we had worked on, because we had the camera in the helicopter. Not only are the boats and the marks moving, but the camera is moving. But it worked well from start to finish, and we were on time and on budget.”
Dubbed AC LiveLine, the system overlaid geo-positioned lines and data streams at an accuracy of within an inch on live race-course video shots taken from rapidly moving helicopter- and water-based platforms. It won an Emmy for its use on the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco and was used again at the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda.
“Stan is a visionary who looked to provide innovative graphics solutions to enhance viewer understanding and enjoyment of sports coverage,” says Denis Harvey, Executive Producer on both America’s Cup events. “AC LiveLine transformed the TV coverage of the America’s Cup, with the virtual graphics integrated into the live video, making it understandable and adding a new level of information for TV viewers. It has brought new fans to the sport now that they can understand it. At the same time, it revolutionized the on-water race-management operation and enabled the umpiring to be done from on shore.”
Mason adds, “When used correctly, [LiveLine] was every bit as important to the viewer on the America’s Cup as the first-down line is for viewers of football: it puts in perspective where the action is and, therefore, what the viewer was missing.”
What the Future Holds: Sailing and Technology Remain His Passion
When not sailing the globe, Stan and his wife, Sally – a multiple U.S. Yachtswoman of the Year and a sailing legend in her own right — live in Palo Alto, CA. The sailing power couple have one son, Tam, and recently celebrated their 40th anniversary.
Today, Honey, a three-time Emmy Award-winner, continues to sail full-time. However, the tech bug has never left him, as he is currently developing a miniature, affordable version of LiveLine that he foresees being used on smaller events like dinghy sailing.
“I’m still very interested and involved in [sports technology],” he says. “What I’m most proud of is how we took three or four of the most demanding projects I could have imagined and created a toolset that has just gotten easier and easier through the years — and will continue to do so. I couldn’t have done any of it without the amazing team of people I collected and was privileged to work with.”
No matter the endeavor — whether navigating a yacht or creating technology for sports broadcasts — two traits stand out to all who work alongside Honey: his humble manner and innate ability to collaborate.
“Stan has no ego, no ego whatsoever,” says Mason. “It’s very interesting to see a guy like Stan in our industry because you would not expect the smartest guy in the room to also have the smallest ego and to be able to collaborate so successfully with the giants in our industry. Stan has a wisdom and curiosity that I’ve never seen in anyone else — inside or outside our industry.”