Ahead of the NFL's season opener between the Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons, NBC Sports debuted the "green zone" on Sunday Night Football to decidedly mixed reviews.
Now, NBC Sports will launch another new innovation to its NFL broadcast before the Eagles' Sunday Night Football match-up against the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 11.
Dubbed "SNF Kicks Tracer," Sunday Night Football will become the first NFL telecast to use radar to trace the flight and trajectory of field goal kicks, similar to the way tracer technology is used during golf broadcasts. NBC will debut the new technology this Sunday night, when the New Orleans Saints take on the Minnesota Vikings.
In addition to the tracer, which the broadcast will limit initially to instant replays, the technology also enables fans to know the trajectory and speed of the ball during field goals. But the most innovative function is a "good from" statistic that shows how far away any field goal 45 yards or longer would have been successful from. NBC debuted part of its "SNF Kicks" package back in Week 6, which revealed a 48 yard field goal from New England Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski would have been good from 57 yards.
"I don't feel comfortable doing it live right now," said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of Sunday Night Football "You won't want to distract people. What you want is to enhance the viewing experience, not distract from it … so we're going to start it out in replay and see how it works."
As the season goes on, NBC Sports will also use the new technology on other kicking plays, such as kickoffs and punts, where a shadow will trace the path of the ball as it travels down the field, Gaudelli said. So for the first time, fans will know exactly where a punt goes out of bounds, which could differ at times from the referee's estimate on the field.
"We haven't spoken to the league about that," Gaudelli said. "We've obviously thought about that, but the league has had chips in the ball now for two years … I'm sure there's some guesstimation there, if that's a word, but I believe they have the technology now to do it themselves if they wanted to."
NBC Sports has utilized tracer technology in its golf coverage for a long time, but when it came time to deploying it in an NFL broadcast, Gaudelli and his team ran into several challenges. According to TrackMan, the company NBC turned to in order to develop its tracer technology, measuring a non-spherical ball like a football that can spin in a spiral or end-over-end motion was a complex problem to overcome. There was also the issue of crowd noise.
"I think we've all had our eyes opened a little bit," Gaudelli said. "The noise on a football stadium is a lot different versus [a golf course], Even the actual noise made on the field by the players affects the accuracy of the radar technology. So it's been a process."
Gaudelli, who introduced NFL fans to the now-ubiquitous yellow line during his time at ESPN, said part of the reason he's rolling out the new technology in pieces and limiting its use to instant replay is because he doesn't want the features to negatively impact the viewing experience of fans.
"If it becomes something where people now expect it like the yellow line, great, we're ready to use it. If it's something like, 'Hey, I like it in replay but I don't want my live kicks affected in any way,' I totally get that, too," Gaudelli said. "To me, if it's not enhancing the experience on the field, it's probably not worth doing."