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It all seems so simple. Football is played now at speeds faster than ever. Technology has never been more effective. So why not employ the NFL's massive revenue to ensure that games are adjudicated as accurately as possible?
So goes the thinking behind a proposal that would add dedicated high-definition video cameras in each stadium, supplementing broadcast equipment and providing officials with all necessary angles to view replays. The NFL has pledged to study the idea, submitted last month by the New England Patriots, but early vibes centered around cost and infrastructure concerns. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was not amused, saying at the NFL owners meetings: "It's disappointing every year to hear we can't afford it as a league."
Can that be possible? Could adding cameras truly be cost-prohibitive for a league that projects more than $12 billion in revenue this year? I spoke to several industry insiders with knowledge of both the technology and stadiums involved to find out.
Estimates vary, but as you dig deeper into the associated issues and challenges, it seems possible that the price tag could approach $20 million or more. Assumptions that a corporate sponsor could cover the cost might have some ethical roadblocks, and -- most importantly -- it is not at all clear that the additional cameras would consistently provide the angles that are sometimes missing from broadcast feeds.
NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino spent seven years working in the league's instant replay department and has noted the absence of goal-line angles in previous public statements. The league did not make him available to ESPN.com to discuss the Patriots' proposal.
The most knowledgeable outside voice on such issues might be Scott Nardelli, the senior vice president of Bexel, a technology company that is working with the league and Zebra Technologies to install equipment for its NextGen stats project. Nardelli consulted with the NFL on its conversion to HD instant replay in 2007 and likely would be involved with any study on additional camera installation.
"Having the technology available is one thing," Nardelli said. "But that doesn't necessarily mean there will be a material change created when you use it the way you thought you would. This is an issue throughout technology. There is always a latest and greatest, but how do you use it? And do you really need it?
"We can install the technology. It can be done. Where there is a will, there's a way. But at what cost, and to what extent will it improve officiating? That's what I imagine the NFL would be investigating."
Based on what I can glean, the NFL will study the installation of between eight and 10 cameras -- to be positioned on the sideline, goal lines and/or end lines -- in each of its 31 stadiums. The basic idea is to ensure that replay officials can see whether the ball crosses one of those planes while the play is still live.
Depending on the type selected, cameras could cost between $5,000 and $50,000 apiece. Doing the math, the estimated equipment price would range from $1.24 million to $15.5 million. Given the stakes, you can assume a figure closer to the latter. After all, the video must be high-quality enough to televise in order for fans to see why a call was or was not changed.
What still must be studied, however, is the extent of infrastructure required -- installing new fiber-optic lines, increasing bandwidth, implementing a data-flow plan -- to ensure the video can be processed and used in real time both on the sideline and in the league's New York command center. Nardelli declined to estimate those costs, but another person with knowledge of the issue guessed it could exceed the total price of the camera equipment.
I've assumed that part of the league's decision to "study" the issue was to find a corporate sponsor for the project, much as it did with a $400 million deal that allowed Microsoft to supply custom Surface Pro tablets for sideline use. But I spoke with a few involved parties who questioned the optics of selling an officiating tool to a private interest. The chance of a company influencing how a game is called or how crews are assigned might be remote, but the appearance of the possibility is enough to raise concerns.
In the end, though, even a $25 million price tag works out to $780,000 per team -- a number that isn't likely to be deemed prohibitive if it guaranteed better-officiated games.
But would it? Nardelli was kind enough to walk me through some potential challenges.
Atop the list is finding an appropriate, fair and consistent angle at stadiums that are all arranged differently, using fixed cameras that likely wouldn't have zoom lenses. Placed too low, the cameras could be blocked by people or objects on the sideline. Placed too high or far away, they might not provide a clear enough view. And favorable angles in some stadiums would generate concerns about competitive advantage.
"You have to make sure you put them in a place where they will always capture what you want them to," Nardelli said.
Indeed, imagine the frustration if $25 million worth of cameras and infrastructure still couldn't establish ball positioning for every review. Or consider the outrage if the angles at, say, Lambeau Field provide Green Bay Packers games with better officiating calls than they would at, say, the San Diego Chargers' decrepit Qualcomm Stadium.
Secondly, the best options in some stadiums could block the view of fans. Or there could be concerns about aesthetics in newly constructed facilities.
"The big thing there is not detracting from people's experience," Nardelli said. "Does it obstruct a view of the playing field? Do you have to run cables through someone's suite?"
Finally, the NFL must evaluate how often the enhanced equipment would be useful. We've all seen replay reviews that couldn't establish the ball's true positioning because of a poor angle. Such instances are not infrequent, but they aren't common, either. If there were any easy solution to avoid them, I'm sure the NFL would jump on it. Would it pay $25 million to improve the chances of sometimes making a better call? That's largely the question that halted any momentum the proposal had last month.
"To me, it's a matter of this," Nardelli said. "Is what the cameras capture going to improve the officiating in a game enough to make this a project worth pursuing? It's hard to say at this point without further study. There are a lot of different things involved."