Live From Super Bowl LVII: Fox Sports’ Mike Davies on the Team Effort To Be the ‘Steward’ of Super Bowl LVII
From AR to 8K, 5G to HDR, Sunday’s Big Game promises to have it all
Mike Davies, SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports, and his team have been working tirelessly with numerous vendors, technology partners, the NFL, and others to ensure that Fox Sports’ production of Super Bowl LVII, as well as pregame coverage, meets the needs of NFL fans across the country. Davies sat down with SVG Editorial Director Ken Kerschbaumer at State Farm Stadium on the eve of the Big Game to discuss an effort that has been months in the making.
How did you and the team approach this Super Bowl in terms of production planning?
There are two parts: the game and the pregame. For the game, I don’t have any reluctance in saying that we start from the last time we had the Super Bowl [in 2020 at Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, FL]. You look at the cameras and other show elements that may not have been available last time. From there, one tries to try to figure out where the tools can be better positioned. But you don’t just add tools for tools’ sake.
The pregame is the part that changes every time and is a complete redo because it is dependent on where you are and what the producer wants to do. In our case, it’s Bill Richards[, producer, Fox Super Bowl Sunday pregame show]. One thing about Fox is the collaboration with him and Rod Conti[, VP, studio remote operations, Fox Sports, and his] remote studio crew.
Here in Arizona, there’s little in common that this pregame show has with Miami from a technical standpoint. We’re doing it all quite differently, but we are still about tracing the fans’ journey into the stadium. We start with the outside set and then move our show into the stadium to our inside set.
It seems like the fans who attend the game this Sunday will be able to get engaged with the Fox studio show given its location on the Great Lawn.
In Miami, we had a Fan Plaza on game day, and it was a surprise at how active it was. We may start a little slow from an in-person–audience standpoint because our coverage starts even before the gates open, but the electricity of the onsite game-day experience is the vibe that we want. The NFL has done a great job with the area they call Game Day Experience, and we’re looking forward to being a big part of that.
What are some of the key highlights for you in new technologies?
When you do a Super Bowl, the broadcasting network becomes the television steward of the biggest one-day show on Earth. Global sports around the world — the World Cup, the ICC, and the Olympics — are all huge shows, but they don’t happen on one day.
And that means we need to make sure that we are able to demonstrate state of the art while not incorporating gimmicky elements that could take away from the coverage. We’ve worked with our director Rich Russo and our producer Rich Zyontz and President, Production and Operations, Brad Zager to come up with those things that we think will be useful in the coverage.
Like Super Bowls before us, we have an extravagant number of cameras for this game — 94 at last count. I’ll bet, though, at least a few of them won’t get tallied at all. We have as many cameras as this so that we have coverage on any eventuality, no matter how unlikely.
Let’s take the end-line pylon. That may not get a tally. but, if it does, it’s going to be pretty important.
I always get asked about the “bells and whistles,” and the important thing in our opinion is not to add technical gimmicks as tempting as it may be. The tools we seek are the ones that elevate the resources available to production, to broadcast the game and not miss a thing. Some of the unusual items for us — things you wouldn’t see on a regular game — are the 8K high-frame-rate camera on the reverse 50-yard line, all the Sony 4K cameras that we use down the lines and goal lines, the addition of literally dozens of super-motion cameras. They are there for that purpose. Certainly, they can look cool, and that’s great. But, ultimately, it’s to help to do two things: to cover the game and to convey its drama.
The use of 8K here has a bit of a story because, when we did this game back at Super Bowl XLII, it was an old Vision Research camera, and it got the best look of the David Tyree catch. We have an Astro 8K camera in that position to maybe catch lightning in a bottle again. And we also have all the Sony 4K cameras as well.
I spoke with Rich Russo and Brad Zager, and each of them said that the production plan for the Super Bowl reflects experiences during the season.
I think that’s right. A Super Bowl season is always a different kind of season. Moments during the regular season inform decisions for the Big Game at the end.
But, at the end of the day, the Super Bowl is an enhancement of what this production crew does during the year, both in the studio and at the game.
One of the technologies that debuted on your Super Bowl LIV production in Miami was the EVS Xtra Motion system. How will that be used this time?
It’s interesting to look back at what we had in the Super Bowl Tech Tent in Miami and what is still relied on. I think Xtra Motion is one of those things. It’s an on-premises solution to turn non-super-motion cameras into super-motion, and we’re thinking about it for the pylons and other shots that aren’t going to be super-motion. I’m also looking forward to trying it in Daytona for the Daytona 500.
What the EVS gang has done is decrease the turnaround time so it’s only five seconds to generate the super-slo-mo clip regardless of the size of the original clip. With that type of turnaround, we can look at using it in the same cadence of replay that we would normally use.
What else should we expect to see?
Our sets. We have once again raised the bar on pregame sets. Our outside set is enormous. And to capture the environment, we tapped Flycam to do one of the longest runs we have done on a two-point wirecam: over a quarter mile. For us, our Great Lawn stage sets the tone for the enormity of the event. It’s a bit of a statement.
Our inside set is sneakily innovative. It fits in a section of seats that were taken out; it expands onto the field, and the roof raises and lowers. It will take us up to kickoff and do postgame.
Well, one thing you won’t see that’s pretty innovative is how we are doing communications. CP Communications is using a private 5G band for beltpacks and wireless communications.
I think back to Super Bowl [LIV and the use of] that single 5G camera essentially for demonstration and marketing purposes. Now we are basing a whole communications strategy on the technology.
Another thing you won’t see is the post facility. We have an edit facility set up here with Dustin Myers[, SVP, production operations, and his] group leading the charge for all postproduction, both here and in Los Angeles.
And it looks like AR will be a big part of both the studio show and the game coverage.
It is. In fact, there are different flavors of AR here for different use cases. A Stype [optical tracking camera] and our own Unreal Engine is used on the techno-cranes on the outside set like we did at the World Cup in Doha. AE Live will be used on the exterior Flycam outside, which is through-the-lens AR technology from TrackMen. And we have a mashup of Racelogic, Sony, and Silver Spoon to enhance the inside Skycam. Zac Fields, SVP, graphics, is all over this and has become preeminent in the dark arts of the medium.
The big new development is what is being done for the Skycam inside. Can you tell us about that?
People have been doing AR on Skycam for a long time, and it’s really good. We have always thought that there was some room for improvement in terms of stability, especially when the camera is sitting still. What Racelogic brings to the table is a radio-based solution to determine precisely where in space the Skycam is. And Sony brings along the new ability to track the camera’s movements from a pan-and-tilt standpoint and integrate the data that comes out of the lens. Silver Spoon takes all this data to produce the tracked graphics.
An important addition is the Fox Sports Jewel Event system, or FSJE. What does that mean to the production effort?
In 2021, VP, Field Operations and Engineering, Kevin Callahan and Consultant Doug McGee envisioned a multi-use system that was built for the World Cup but would be available to do other large events, like this one. In Arizona, it provides us with the backend for postproduction. It provides us with the switchers and audio boards for a submix and subswitch. It provides us with disaster protection. And it provides us with the routers and monitors that get distributed all over the place. It also eliminates the need for 1½ trucks.
The other bit is doing the massive amount of the distribution, or what we call FATS: Feed Any Truck Something. That basically goes to anybody — the international compound, Van Wagner for in-venue, Hawk-Eye, etc. — as the distribution of signals ends up being quite a big job.
There are also a lot of vendors here — Game Creek Video, CP, 3G Wireless, Fletcher/NEP — and a lot of the manufacturers have representatives onsite.
Vendors are in some ways the heartbeat of the technical operation here. What’s great about doing a Super Bowl is that you get to pick from the very best in the world. Game Creek is obviously the main core, and, of course, they’re doing halftime this year, too. NEP helps us with robotics and high-resolution cameras through their Fletcher Group, and CT supplies screens for the studio set.
With respect to RF, we’ve split the baby as we have three vendors. 3G Wireless is in the bowl; we have worked with them all year. They are quite good at doing super slow motion over RF and will do our Line to Gain pylon. Outside, we have CP Communications and all of our communication through JMA Wireless, utilizing their 5G network and outside video. Digital Black comes in to do the overall comms for pregame.
Filmwerks is one of our main vendors with the sets they’ve constructed here and in Doha. That isn’t easy stuff.
We lean on a lot of other manufacturers. Sony has come in en masse to support us. Most of the cameras are Sony, and we enjoy a fantastic relationship with them. Router systems in both trucks are Evertz, [which is] also doing the 8K replay this year. There is also EVS with our replay servers, Xtra Motion, and our FSJE. And then there are RTS and Riedel on comms, Diversified with their work on the FSJE flypack, and CES Power supplying power. Event Ready is our trucking company but also does all the furnishings and even has onsite carpenters. The vendors and manufacturers are part of the technical heartbeat of this show.
You have Game Creek Encore and PrimeOne, the latter having just finished its first season of NFL for Amazon Prime. What does that duo of trucks bring to the table?
This will be Encore’s third Super Bowl. It’s complemented nicely with PrimeOne, and I’ll tell you that Game Creek did an awesome job with that truck. A concern is always that it has only done football — TNF with Amazon — but to have them clear it out and be ready for the NFC Championship was amazing.
When we looked at it, we felt that the combination of Prime and Encore was our best bet for having as much firepower as we needed and being ready for the things that we didn’t know about.
Also, together they offer a lot of room for bodies. While we have a few people back in Pico in the Vault, as well as cutting all of our daily shows there, most people are here onsite.
The past six months, the team has pulled off some big-time events: the World Cup, the NFL season, World Series, The Clash, this Super Bowl. And next week is the Daytona 500 and start of the NASCAR season. How did you and the team manage this all and prepare so that everybody could hit their spot?
Last June, I and the technical operations leadership — Conti, Field Operations Director Dave Jones, Callahan, and VP, Field Operations and Engineering, Brad Cheney — went out on a retreat. It wasn’t anywhere special but just a place to spend two days huddling and drawing up a plan of how we were going to do this and who we were going to conscript to help us: freelancers and other resources and staffers.
I feel those two days were invaluable because we also talked about how to work with each other, knowing that it was going to be a stressful period of time. Being able to take that time apart from the office environment and simply clear the calendar and focus on the plan was the way that we kicked this off.
The two people who really stepped up to help with this Super Bowl were Director, Remote Engineering, Matt Battiglia and Director, Field and Technical Operations, Ted Kenney. They were working on this while Kevin Callahan was away in Doha. And, on Rod Conti’s side, it was Director, Remote Studio Engineering, Greg Pfeifer and Senior Manager, Operations and Engineering, Patty Fisher, and Tara Schumal, who kind of straddles crewing and management.
They worked constantly in making sure that we didn’t slow down on the planning.
There are two departments that touch everything we do: crewing and transmission. There are people on those teams who, from every little college basketball game all the way up to the Super Bowl, touch everything. And those are not large groups either. Executive Director, Broadcast Services, Leigh Behunin runs the Transmission Scheduling Department, and Director, Production, Stacy Sunny leads crewing. Director, Crewing, Michael Mable and Director, Crewing and Operations, John Stapleton and their teams get the hundreds of people here hired and paid.
I think successful production management is the glue of what we do. Logistics, hotels, credentials, offices, catering — nothing happens if these things are not in place. There are too many to mention entirely, but the people who kept a tent around this circus were Executive Director, Fox Sports Desk, Matt Engelberg’s team. Monique Spencer and Lindsay Czarneki took turns throwing staplers at me for credential adds and changes. Senior Manager, Studio Remote Operations, Anil Letherwala is hotel air-traffic control — and we had nine hotels. Senior Assignment Desk Editor Sam Demartines dealt with the team hotels and other logistics, but this crew is the reason this Super Bowl will, once again, be the best.
Ultimately, at Fox, we try to get the business done but also do so in a way that is sustainable, fun, and relaxed as possible and that we care about one another support one another. It’s a long day, but, in the end, we are all one team.