ESPN Sees XFL as the Model for the Future of Broadcast Sports Audio

Real-time, close-up sound is the hallmark of the coverage

With less than two weeks left before the divisional games and then the championship match, the XFL has been making some noise. In fact, deploying more player, coach, and officials’ microphones than any other broadcast sports, the league is helping set the stage for a new era in sports sound.

ESPN’s Ed Placey: “XFL football has been very fulfilling, and a lot of that has been because of the audio technology.”

In only its second full season in four years, given a three-year COVID hiatus, and with new ownership by entrepreneur/actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and private-investment firm RedBird Capital, the XFL has become a developmental proving ground for what close-up sound can do for sports on television. Ed Placey, VP, Event and Studio Production Group, ESPN, has been at the helm of that process. Among his primary responsibilities are college-football event coverage and content innovation across the company’s portfolio of sports properties, as well as development of new technology and alternative production approaches.

He says the big difference this season is more strategic use of microphone arrays, which also include conventional parabolic and shotgun mics. The broadcaster, he stresses, is using the lessons learned from the league’s first season, as truncated as it was.

“Those were a meaningful five weeks to just learn what we had with all this audio coming into us,” he notes. “We were just starting to get the hang of it, of what we needed more of, what we needed less of, what was most helpful, when was most helpful. And we were excited for the opportunity and lobbied to make sure we did everything we could to get it [from the league] from a production standpoint. We felt like we were just about to hit our stride.

“But that certainly benefited us here in 2023,” he continues. “It still took a couple of weeks to kind of fine-tune that. But we definitely were very strategic: if you just open up all the microphones, it’s not a very good experience, but you have to have that kind of experience where you learn. What’s the timing you want? What sequence do you want: an offensive coordinator, then a defensive coordinator, then the quarterback calling the play? I think that, through the learning process and the feedback process on a weekly basis to all our crews — playing back sequences to them and talking to our audio group, our submixing group, giving them the feedback, showing them clips, and talking about them — we achieved what we were pursuing.”

In addition to being strategic, Placey says, ESPN’s audio crew was aggressive. The crew took chances with the audio, intentionally but with an awareness that it was also building trust long-term with the players, the teams, and the league. This was especially significant since much of the sound was intended to be heard as it happened, with only a dual-level profanity delay (one level keeps some ambient noise underneath to minimize abruptness; the second silences everything) during play, instead of during replays. It wasn’t easy to process, given the vast amounts of audio coming in in real time.

“As you know,” Placey says, “with most other sports, you’re limited to only a few things you can [use], and everybody’s kind of cautious and protective. We’re trying to make a case not just within the XFL but by extension to all of our sports that, with planning and trust, we can get to a point of managing this type and amount of audio access responsibly and thoughtfully, rather than just going rogue with it. Leagues need to be protective and put in audio monitoring and play everything back off tape. But the fans these days are expecting it live. The days of just rolling it back off tape aren’t where fans are today.”

All the Sound, Everywhere, All the Time

What sets XFL apart from most televised sports is not just the sheer amount of audio but the number of sources. They include two players per side per game plus the quarterbacks; coaches (head coaches and defensive coordinators); sideline reporters; ESPN XFL Rules Analyst Dean Blandino in Van Nuys, CA; and officials, both on the field and remotely from the league’s Command Center in Arlington, TX. All game audio is sent directly to ESPN’s audio consoles, where A1s have immediate control over it. In the NFL model, the league controls the scrimmage sound and feeds it to the broadcaster for prescribed number of seconds before and after the snap.

“What makes [XFL] what it is,” Placey explains, “is that we have access to the complete coach-to-player communication on both sides of the ball for both teams. Anytime they press to talk to the quarterback or to the XFL, you’re there with them, as are the players — 15 helmets with audio. Not just the quarterback but the skill-position players or whomever the team designates to hear the play calls can all hear that. Anytime there’s a penalty called, the official that calls it is pressing a button on their beltpack, and we’re hearing them communicate that to the referee. It’s also being communicated to the Command Center. We’re hearing the entire process in real time, and I think that has been one of the most fan-enlightening components.

“You’re not just hearing the referee; you’re hearing everybody when something needs to be sorted out,” he continues. “I think that has been groundbreaking for football fans to hear, plus you can get plays called quicker because receivers running back from the last play are already hearing the next play. All the stuff in college football where they’re holding up signs and curtains and signaling plays at the last second — all that goes away. In the NFL, they’re still going back to the huddle; the quarterback gets the call and huddles everybody else up and calls the play. You’re able to go with a shorter play clock in XFL, and the game moves faster — for the most part, the games have been finishing in under three hours without the feeling that, Hey, we haven’t seen enough football. The football has been very fulfilling, and a lot of that has been because of the audio technology.”

Getting Noticed

Placey says other leagues have noticed, calling and asking about ESPN’s XFL process and workflows. What they’re being told is that it’s a balancing act: viewers can see and hear entire threads, such as a league call on a play challenge (there are cameras as well as microphones on the officials in the Command Center), but ESPN’s production lets that play out almost in cinema verité, with announcers often completely laying out.

“There was a discussion,” he says, “that, hey, you could talk to Dean Blandino and ask him questions while he’s executing a replay review. We said, Frankly, as cool as that sounds, we don’t want to do that. We want to make sure that viewers and anybody else watching sees that TV is not influencing the process. We were able to get our crews thinking a little bit differently and a little bit against their nature: [in] calling an NFL or a college game, when something happens, you quickly run a replay and then talk over it. We’re all being educated by the process, but we want people to see the process as it is and then have the ability to ask a question after it’s completed. That’s what you’re seeing on the air, and the audio that comes from that has been very productive. The response to that has been pretty universal that, Hey, we need to see more of this in other sports.”

Taking Chances

That said, it’s remarkable that all that audio is able to be controlled by a conventional two-person audio-mix team of an A1 and a submixer. Even then, there’s a wrinkle. Placey says the mixers are encouraged to take chances and stay a little ahead of the game’s narrative.

“We told them, if you have to wait for cues, you’re going to be playing catch-up the entire game,” he explains. “[We] learn each and every week where our most productive areas are and give them the freedom to react without having to wait for cues. For instance, when the flag goes down, you know there’s going be some sort of communication over the official’s microphones; don’t wait to be told to bring that up: pull it up halfway and, when the announcers pause because they’re interested in hearing what’s going on, bring it up even more.”

A similar commandment in the ESPN XFL audio bible is that announcers not use mix-minus mixes and instead keep the sound effects and dialog at the same level in their headsets as the fans are hearing at home. “If a coach or a player is talking and we’re hearing it,” Placey says, “it naturally stops you, pauses you for a second to listen. We made it clear that we want to listen more than we talk in those situations.”

Postseason Sound

XFL’s postseason, which began the weekend of April 29 and culminates with the XFL Championship game on May 13, will have even more sound, he adds. Referring to the iPad tablets that players can use on the sidelines to quickly review plays, he says he’s requesting more video and audio access on those devices. (The NFL’s Sideline Viewing System provides players with input between plays, but it’s limited to still images.) There may also be more microphones, but he says the crew will continue to hew to the dictum of letting the game speak for itself.

“We don’t want to add too much, overwhelming people with too much audio: a coach talking over the top of another coach plus our announcers talking on top of them,” he says. “That’s the thing I think we’ve gotten best at: not talking over the microphones. Part of that was our strategy of not just making sure our announcers hear what’s going out so they naturally pause when they’re hearing good audio coming from the field.”

Beyond that, broadcast sports continue to lap up sound from the field, a trend Placey says won’t end anytime soon.

“You know, there was fear that talking to a player during action or even in the dugout may be disruptive or cause them to lose their concentration and focus on the game,” he says, referring to ESPN’s MLB player microphones of the past two seasons. “But those were implemented and evaluated during Spring Training, during All-Star Games, during exhibitions, and then a leap of faith was taken to do it in-game. You saw the value of that in baseball. You saw it even with golf: on our Masters coverage, we were talking to golfers as they were walking up after their tee shots. It’s wonderful. A lot of good has come from that, and I think we’re now able to share that and are sharing that with other sports.”

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