These days, you'd be forgiven if you're more excited about watching the "big game" — whether that's football, basketball, hockey — on TV rather than from inside a sports arena. At least, that's a trend that the Chicago-based sports graphics company Sportvision is banking on.
"With wide-screen TVs and high definition, and these man caves and all the graphics and data that we give you that they can't replicate at the game, a lot of fans are saying, 'I'd rather stay home and watch it,' " says Hank Adams, the company's CEO.
If you watch sports on TV, you probably know Sportvision, if not by name. The company adds those colorful, on-screen graphics to live sports events, like the virtual strike zone box that logs trajectory of a baseball pitch as it crosses the plate, the country flags magically hovering over America's Cup yachts and, of course, the company's best-known invention: football's first-down "yellow line."
That's the line — trademark name Virtual Yellow 1st & Ten — that looks like it's painted on the field during game play. Sportvision debuted it with ESPN back in 1998.
'The Guys Who Draw The Yellow Line'
Adams has tried to describe his business in other terms, he tells All Things Considered host Audie Cornish, but "in spite of everything else that we do, people keep coming back to that ... I try and then eventually just default to, 'Well, we're the guys who draw the yellow line.' "
The company hatches all its technologies in Silicon Valley, in a Mountain View, Calif., lab staff call "the war room." It's a giant warehouse space where you'll find stray football helmets trimmed with infrared lights pinning down piles of paper. TV cameras are mounted on high-rise platforms in the corners of the room.
The cameras are all trained toward the floor, a replica of an NFL field painted green and white. It's one-eighth of the actual size and would take about 10 strides to cover from end zone to end zone.
There are infrared and motion sensors in NFL stadiums around the country just like the ones around this model, and they all do the same thing: map and track everything on the field and send that data to Sportvision. Sportvision then creates a computer-generated graphic superimposed over the broadcast; in this case, a yellow line.
It's a lot like the so-called green-screen technology that your local TV weather team uses. But the Sportvision technology, Adams says, is a bit more sophisticated.
"In football, it's not so easy, because it's grass and painted logos and football pads and pants that can get grass stains on them," Adams explains. "It's a very tough thing for us, to distinguish between, say, the Green Bay Packers' green pants and the color of their field."
It's been a game of trial and error over the years, Adams says, to figure out how to perfect the technology.
"For a graphical enhancement to work, it has to be something that's hard to see, happens a lot and is really important to the game," Adams says. "And if we can meet those three criteria, it turns out to be very successful for us."
That "yellow line," for example, grew out of a technology hockey fans may remember: "the famous, or infamous, glowing puck," Adams says.
Known as FoxTrax, the puck had electronics embedded inside that tracked its movement across the ice during live play. "Some people loved it; some people hated it," Adams explains. After two years of use, NHL ratings were down and the puck was dropped.
"For the hard-core hockey fan, they felt that it was over the top," Adams says. "If we ever did it again, we'd be a lot more subtle about it; we'd do it in replay."
Next Up: Soccer. Maybe
It's easiest to come up with virtual enhancements like these for sports like football or NASCAR, because they provide lots of equipment to tack sensors to. It's not so simple for games with mostly bare skin and movement, like basketball or soccer.
That last sport holds particular appeal for the company, but the challenges for soccer go beyond the technical side.
"As a businessperson, I'm obviously attracted to the thought of enhancing soccer, because it is the world's biggest sport, clearly. And from our perspective, there's been very little done to improve the quality of that broadcast. They have been doing the same way for 50 years in that sport," Adams says.
"In fact, when we took our technology over and said, 'Hey, we can track the players and put virtual off-side markers and arrows down to certain players and show you things in real time,' the European broadcasters put their arms up and said, 'Oh, we are never going to do that crazy stuff you Americans do.' "
But, Adams points out, people "screamed and yelled and rebelled" when a score box was first added to screens in the United Kingdom a couple of decades ago.
"And lo and behold, now you can't see a game in any sport that doesn't have the live score on," Adams says. "Now, of course, it's just the fabric of what we see. So I think [the soccer leagues'] attitudes are changing there as well."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now, whether or not you tweet during the big game, one thing's for sure: You'd be forgiven these days if you're more excited about watching your favorite team at home on TV rather than slogging to the nearest stadium.
HANK ADAMS: With wide-screen TVs and high definition, and these man caves and all the graphics and data that we give you that they can't replicate at the game, a lot of fans are saying: I'd rather stay home and watch it.
CORNISH: That's Hank Adams, CEO of Sportsvision, and his business is built on that trend. Sportvision adds those colorful, virtual graphics to live TV sports events, the virtual strike zone box logging the location of baseball pitches as they cross the plate.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is the strike zone. You get to see where the ball could be, for a strike.
CORNISH: The country flags magically hovering over America's Cup yachts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAILBOAT RACE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We've got those wonderful, live, line graphics on board; the compass rose, the start line, the course boundaries - it's all there.
CORNISH: And of course, their best-known invention: football's yellow line.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ESPN unveils its latest technical innovation on tonight's game. It's ESPN's 1st & Ten. The gold-colored line you'll see appears to be painted on the field, but it's really being electronically generated by us. We think you're going to like it.
ADAMS: We debuted it with ESPN, back in 1998. And in spite of everything else that we do, people keep coming back to that. When I try to describe what I do and what the business is, I try and then eventually just default to, well, we're the guys who do the yellow line.
CORNISH: Its trademark name is the Virtual Yellow 1st & Ten. The company hatches these technologies here in Silicon Valley, in a Mountain View lab they call the war room.
ADAMS: Which is a giant warehouse room with really high ceilings. And as you look around, we built a lot of camera platforms around the perimeter of our war room.
CORNISH: Stray football helmets trimmed with infrared lights pin down piles of paper and data.
ADAMS: Infrared cameras up, there's...
CORNISH: TV cameras are mounted on high-rise platforms in the corners of the room.
ADAMS: They're very expensive, high-definition cameras up on tripods.
CORNISH: All are trained on a replica of an NFL field one-eighth the size of the real thing.
ADAMS: A little, miniature football field.
CORNISH: Painted in green and white on the concrete floor.
Hank Adams, here we are on the field, so to speak, which is really about the size of - I don't know what; definitely not a football field, which is funny.
ADAMS: It would take about 10 strides for you to cover end zone to end zone here, on this size field.
CORNISH: Which is funny. When you look at it on camera, it actually does look like a regular major league stadium field at a distance, and you wouldn't know that it's one-eighth of the size.
ADAMS: Until you step on it ;and you look giant, right?
CORNISH: I will look amazing. I will look powerful, and I will look like a titan of the field.
There are infrared and motion sensors in NFL stadiums around the country just like the ones around this model, and they all do the same thing: map and track everything on the field, and send that data to Sportvision. Sportvision then creates a computer-generated graphic superimposed over the broadcast - in this case, a yellow line. Now, think like that so-called green screen technology that your local TV weather team uses.
ADAMS: Unlike a weather man, they make these hideous green colors that no person's clothing would ever have; and so the computer looks for a specific color and says if I see that color, I'm going to draw the graphic. If I don't, it must be the weather person standing in front of it, and I won't draw the graphic.
With football, it's not so easy because it's grass and painted logos and football pads, and pants that can get grass stains on them. You know, it's a very tough thing for us to distinguish between, say, the Green Bay Packers' green pants and the color of their field. But we have a very sophisticated system that will pick, you know, a whole range of colors that could be on the field, and a whole range of colors that could be in their jerseys. So it is the weather man technology. It's just a more sophisticated version of that.
CORNISH: So that's why if I stand over here with you, the yellow line doesn't go over my foot.
ADAMS: That's right.
CORNISH: Over my leopard print ballet shoe.
ADAMS: Because your shoe - which is different, mind you, than what a football player might be wearing - but it is - it is a distinctive color than the green of the field here. So we know not to draw that graphic over your shoe - right? - because it's not the right colors that we're looking for.
CORNISH: So that's how the company does it, but it's been a game of trial and error over the years figuring out which graphics will work.
ADAMS: For a graphical enhancement to work, it has to be something that's hard to see, happens a lot, and is really important to the game. And if we can meet those three criteria, it turns out to be very successful for us. So if you take the instance of a first-down line, it actually grew out of technology that we'd done for tracking the glowing hockey puck.
So many of the viewers will remember the famous - or infamous - glowing puck. We adapted that technology to football and whereas the glowing puck isn't around anymore, the 1st & Ten line is. It's proved to be a very successful product for us.
CORNISH: Now, when we walked in, the glowing hockey puck was in a glass case in the lobby...
CORNISH: ...with a photo still from that 1996 NHL All-Star game. And you called it infamous, and it was rough going for the glowing puck, right? First of all, talk about how the puck kind of glowed a light blue.
ADAMS: It glowed, and we actually embedded electronics in the puck. And so, it was such a phenomenon. I mean, David Letterman was doing skits with his head glowing as he walked across the stage. And it captured popular attention. Some people loved it, some people hated it. The graphics...
CORNISH: Right, it became this huge cultural moment. And, you know, it had that initial boost but over time, people sort of looked at it unfavorably. And by the end of the two years, ratings were down overall for NHL, and they quit using the puck. And a lot of hockey purists still complain about it.
ADAMS: They do. You know, for the hard-core hockey fan, they felt that it was over the top. It's something that I think if we ever did it again, we'd be a lot more subtle about it. We'd probably do it in replay. We did it, in those cases, live - during the live broadcasts. I think we'd be a little smarter about how we went about it this time.
CORNISH: It's easiest to come up with virtual enhancements for sports with tons of equipment you can tack sensors onto, like football and NASCAR. Not so easy for games with mostly bare skin and movement, like basketball and soccer. Of course, that doesn't mean that Hank Adams and Sportvision won't give it a shot.
Is there a holy grail sport that you would like to change the viewing experience? I don't know if you have a secret, you know, badminton wish or...
CORNISH: ...you see a comet trail for - in curling. But is there some unusual sport that you think would be a fun challenge?
ADAMS: Sure. Well, there is. I mean, you know, as a businessperson, I'm obviously attracted to the thought of enhancing soccer because it is the world's biggest sport, clearly. And from our perspective, there's been very little done to improve the quality of that broadcast. They've been doing it the same way for 50 years, you know, in that sport.
And in fact, when we took some of our technology over and said, hey, we could track the players and put virtual off-sides markers and arrows down to certain players and show you, you know, things in real time, the European broadcasters put their arms up and said, oh, we are never going to do that crazy stuff that you Americans do.
But look, the score box was first put on in soccer in the U.K. 20 years ago, maybe 25 years ago. And when it first came on, people screamed and yelled and rebelled, and there were death threats against the guy who first did it. And lo and behold, now, you can't see a game in any sport that doesn't have the live score on. Now, of course, it's just the fabric of what we see. So I think their attitudes are changing there as well.
CORNISH: Well, Hank Adams, thank you so much for playing with us - literally.
CORNISH: Thank you so much for speaking with us. We appreciate it.
ADAMS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
CORNISH: Hank Adams - he's CEO of Sportvision, the company that does virtual graphics for lives sports events or, as they're known, the Yellow Line Guys. We spoke to him as their labs in Mountain View, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.