Instant Replay Overreach?

Tom Butts Editor-in-Chief

When it comes to advances in camera technology, sports is one of the ultimate drivers. We see this every two years at the Olympics and it seems that with every sports season, camera (and processing) technology is accelerating. And the demand for getting ever closer to the action with high-def video for breathtaking action as well as sports analysis is increasing.

More than a decade after wowing audiences with its stop action, 360-angle views, “Matrix-style” bullet-time action scenes are now being used to analyze plays on the baseball field. Earlier this year the YES Network debuted “YES View,” a nine-camera system that creates a panoramic vision of a batter’s swing, a runner’s slide or a baseman’s sweeping tag.

This month, NBC Sports will debut a similar 360-degree feature for “Sunday Night Football” at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, (check out our story on the system on p. 22). The newly installed 24\4K camera system will allow producers to create a groundbreaking “tactical view” of football plays, freely roaming with never-before-seen viewing angles around the action at both “Red Zones” play. Both systems deploy technology from Israeli- based Replay Technologies “freeD” system, which combines the camera feeds with high-level processing software to create the 3D images. A similar system was used in the 2012 London Olympics.

Using cameras to analyze the latest plays in the sports announcers’ booth is one thing; using cameras to determine whether an official’s call was correct is another. For years, most professional sports leagues have used the instant replay to review controversial calls (the technology debuted during the 1963 Army-Navy game); some pundits have noted that the instant replay helped contribute to the increasing popularity of televised football in the United States.

Major League Baseball is one sport though, that has had a somewhat tenuous relationship with the instant replay, and much of that has been because of tradition. So it was, when MLB announced last month that it would expand the use of the instant replay beyond home run calls to allow managers to challenge pretty much every play—except for balls and strikes—that reaction was decidedly mixed, although most acknowledged that its time had come.

“Human error may be a part of the game, but it doesn’t have to decide a game,” wrote Tim Dahlberg, a sports columnist with the AP.

Others were concerned that the sport, already criticized for taking too long, would take up even more time.

“I fear that baseball games are already growing too long to attract/keep the casual fans the sport needs to thrive. This could exacerbate the problem,” wrote Brett Taylor in (An MLB official noted that the use of the instant replay could actually shorten the game because it would reduce the number of heated arguments between managers and umpires.) Others were adamant that using the technology is just one more step in removing the “human element” from the game.

It should be noted that technology played only a part in MLB’s decision, and that we’re still years away from using 360-degree “Matrix”-style video analysis to determine the outcome of challenged plays. Nevertheless, some fans consider the increasing use of such technology an intrusion into a sport that relies so much on the importance of tradition. What will happen to those flare-ups between managers and umpires, so many of which are staged for the fans? Will this just result in more ad time for the networks?

With the advent of sports in HD (soon to go Ultra), we’re getting to the point where the sports TV fan can make their own calls with super high-resolution, slow-mo cameras that reveal action down to the granular level. Some fear that more technology will overwhelm professional sports, resulting in an increasing emphasis on analysis.

Whether this is a good thing will be up to the networks, which will need to strike a balance between too much blather and just allowing the game to be played.

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.