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Shure Axient wireless tackles tough NFL job in Miami

Any football fan will tell you that one of the most annoying problems in football is referee microphone failure. This issue is particularly difficult Sun Life Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins, where dropouts and audible interference have been a fact of life for years. Determined to find a solution, the team’s newly hired director of broadcast operations, Bryan Lykins, turned to Shure.

In addition to all the radio frequency (RF) traffic required to stage and broadcast an NFL game in a major metro area, Sun Life Stadium is just a half-mile from the main “antenna farm” of transmitters for the city’s TV stations. The existing referee wireless system, implemented by the NFL, simply wasn’t working, so Lykins installed Shure UHF-R.

“That got us through the season, but I kept looking for a better solution,” Lykins recounts. “One of our vendors, Pro-Sound here in Miami, told us about Shure Axient. When I saw its capabilities, it looked like the perfect solution.”

Axient was in beta test, so Pro Sound put Lykins in touch with Shure market development manager Luis Guerra, who arranged a demo. “The demo went well, but the amount of interference at the stadium was truly amazing,” Guerra recalls. “With that much RF on the air, even a clean frequency becomes noisy and non-linear, which is why nothing else really worked reliably. We took a frequency scan and sent it to the Axient product team. When they saw the challenge it was, they set up Sun Life as an official beta test site.”

Shure Axient is designed to deliver clean, uninterrupted audio, even in the presence of direct interference, for mission-critical channels. The system constantly scans the local RF environment for problems and uses frequency diversity to keep a second clean channel available. When a problem is detected, Axient uses a separate data channel to seamlessly change transmitter channels before any problem becomes audible. This can be done either automatically or via manual alert.

Another change implemented by Guerra prior to using Axient during a game was revamping the stadium’s antenna system.

“The old thought in wireless was to use bigger, more powerful antennas,” he notes. “But that actually amplifies the noise floor and interference along with the signal. The Axient system is so powerful and the filtering is so precise that we got the best results with passive omni antennas. You can walk the entire field, even into the tunnel at the far end, and still have perfect reception.”

The installation at Sun Life Stadium includes four Axient channels — two bodypack systems for the referee, and a pair of handhelds that are used for the pregame national anthem and halftime entertainment. Pro-Sound also built an on/off toggle switch to match the design the referees are accustomed to. In addition to the antenna system, there are four access points for Axient’s backchannel data control system — three arrayed around the field, and another outside the referees’ room. The first live broadcast with the system was at the Dolphins’ last preseason game, Sept. 1, 2011, against the Dallas Cowboys.

“The first game was a total success,” states Bryan Lykins. “The sound quality was excellent and, for the first time in years, there were no dropouts on the referee’s mic. In fact, I immediately got a call from the NFL frequency coordinator in Tampa. He noticed we had something different and wanted to know all about it.”

For NFL broadcasts, the league has a frequency coordinator in each city who assigns the needed channels, minimizing the chance of intermodulation. Bryan Lykins simply requests a list of eight frequencies for the referee’s microphone and locks them into Axient.

“If Axient finds a problem, I just go back to the coordinator and ask to swap those frequencies out,” Lykins states. “The great thing is that the system’s Spectrum Manager can even suggest which ones are best. The league’s game day coordinator really appreciates that, because it helps him, too. We compare notes and pick the frequencies that pass both our systems. That list gets locked into the Axient system and we’re good to go.”

Another advantage of Axient is its ability to monitor and control all critical aspects of the system, including transmitter output power and remaining life of the rechargeable battery.

“I love the fact that I have constant access to the remaining battery life in each unit,” notes Lykins. “If I’m running low toward the end of the game, I can reduce the transmit power of one beltpack remotely to save battery. It gives me a greater level of confidence, knowing exactly where we stand instead of just guessing.”

Axient ran at Sun Life Stadium throughout the 2011 NFL season, as well as during University of Miami home games, which are also played in the facility. For an extra layer of redundancy, the referees wore two belt packs fed by a single Shure WL184 unidirectional lavalier microphone and activated by the toggle switch. Reactions from broadcasters and referees have been universally positive.

For Bryan Lykins, it’s all about results.

“The bottom line is this: We’ve had zero dropouts on the air since we’ve had Axient installed,” Lykins said. “That’s been true for NFL games, where frequencies are tightly coordinated, and for college football, which are more like the Wild West. Even if someone turns on an unauthorized frequency during the game, now we have a forward-looking system that can counteract that. Axient gives everyone a level of comfort, knowing there’s one less thing to worry about during the games.”