In soccer, there’s an inherent obsession with the goal line. It’s where dreams live and die, it’s where technology is looking to change the future of the Beautiful Game, and it’s home to one of the most enigmatic positions in all of sports.
Goalkeepers are unique, and, tonight, ESPN will offer a whole new insight into their craft with the debut of a system that embeds cameras inside the actual goalposts of the net during the 2014 AT&T MLS All-Star Game (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, UniMas, TSN).
The match, which pits a team of Major League Soccer All-Stars against current Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich, will feature more than 20 ESPN cameras throughout Providence Park in Portland, OR, but the most eye-catching and innovative view promises to be that provided by those inside the posts, owned and designed by the sports-television giant.
“We want to simply see this unique athlete — who only gets four or five chances in a game to contribute — we want to see him play,” says Bob Frattaroli, who will direct the match from inside MIRA Mobile M-11. “I want to see what’s going on on his line, what’s going on in the six-yard box. That’s what you’re going to see from this look.”
The research and development of this technology dates back to February, when Coordinating Producer and ESPN soccer guru Amy Rosenfeld signed off on the purchase of two official MLS goal structures for the technological team to experiment with. ESPN operations producer Mike Wemple, in his Denver workshop, cut holes in each of the uprights, covered those holes with a Plexiglas-like material, and designed a sort of sled that slides the camera up inside the goal post and locks it into place. A small mirror system is needed to pull in the best shot because the engineering team had difficulty finding a camera and lens that fit horizontally inside the post.
There are two of these fixtures in each goal frame (one 4 in. off the ground, the other 2 ft. off the ground) for a total of four goal-post cameras deployed and hardwired via fiber to the production truck.
“Really, the most challenging part — and we’ve only mastered it in the last couple of weeks — is perfecting the window that goes over the hole,” says Frattaroli. “It [has to be] nearly seemless and have a consistent surface strength so there is integrity of the ball playing off of the post.”
In June, while many of ESPN’s soccer-production folks were down in Brazil for the World Cup, Wemple and Frattaroli ran a first full test of the system during a match featuring the Colorado Rapids Academy Team. From that, ESPN was able to collect about 10 minutes of footage for its research and for presentation to MLS officials.
“It was so much more dramatic than we thought it was going to be,” says Frattaroli. “First of all, it’s a really unique angle, but there’s also an intimacy to it that you’re not expecting.”
With confidence in the system high, ESPN set up its camera-stuffed goals at Red Bull Arena on July 26 for ESPN’s broadcast of the friendly between New York Red Bull and Arsenal. MLS executives were on hand to check out the technology and, ultimately, gave it their seal of approval.
“The cooperation of the league is really critical,” says Rosenfeld. “You need buy-in from a lot of folks. I think the unique thing about MLS is, they completely understand that we are partners and partners moving forward in growing the game. The innovation of new and unique cameras that nobody has ever done is a great opportunity to draw some attention to MLS.”
The MLS All-Star Game has been a test ground of sorts for new broadcast technologies for both ESPN and the league over the years. The two entities have tried everything from putting a camera on a referee’s head to embedding RF microphones in the playing surface of the pitch.
“The All-Star Game is a marquee event for us at MLS, and, as a league, it is important to be truly innovative in how we enhance the viewing experience for our fans with new technologies,” says Larry Tiscornia, VP, broadcasting, Major League Soccer. “At a friendly, we can try new and different innovations, and you couldn’t ask for a better partner than ESPN, who is always looking for ways to improve the broadcast. The ultimate goal of these cool toys is to maximize the experience for the fans watching one of our signature MLS events.”
Today is a soccer-filled day for ESPN. Its presentation of the MLS All-Star match will begin with a 30-minute ESPN FC preview show from a remote set in the Providence Park concourse at 6 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS and continue on ESPN2 with a pregame show at 9:30 p.m. leading into the live match at 9:55 p.m.
When all is said and done in Portland, ESPN FC will have broadcast three 30-minute episodes focusing on the All-Star festivities. It marks the show’s first multiple remote editions from a single event. The network’s signature soccer studio program debuted on the road last September ahead of the USA-Mexico FIFA World Cup qualifying match in Columbus, OH.