It's 90 minutes to game time in Foxboro, Massachusetts, and Troy Aikman's not speaking to anyone.
Around him, a dozen or so crew members, assistants, and friends chatter as they finish last-minute preparations, making sure Gillette Stadium is ready for football. They're testing cables and video feeds, rechecking stats, and setting up the fabric "NFL on FOX" backdrop that will turn this bland, gray, carpeted room into the tiny booth millions will soon see on TV.
Through it all, Aikman stays silent. He's surrounded by four computer monitors displaying every stat and feed he'll need for the next several hours, but he's focused on a small tablet on the desk in front of him. He's scrubbing back and forth in a single play, over and over, looking for something only he can see. The gold Super Bowl ring on his left hand occasionally catches the mid-afternoon sun as it shines into the booth, just above the first level of stands at the 50 yard line.
In an hour and a half, the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots will kick off one of the most important and most anticipated games of the young NFL season. Aikman will stand next to Thom Brennaman, his play-by-play partner for the day, and call the game for an audience that will total 26.7 million viewers. The game will be decided on a last-second desperation pass, will shape one quarterback's legacy and two teams' seasons, and will be endlessly discussed and replayed in the days and weeks to come.
But Aikman’s not worried about any of that. For him, and the entire Fox Sports NFL crew in the depths of the stadium below, it’s just another Sunday.
To watch a football broadcast is to see much more than a football game. There are only about 11 minutes of actual action during a three-hour game, which means 95 percent of the time there’s something else going on. The graphics, replays, highlights, and analysis that make a football game into the at-home experience millions of people know and love — it’s all from Fox, and it’s all done on the fly. Nearly everyone on the crew says that while they broadcast the game, what they really do is make television.
Fox's team totals more than 150, its equipment more than $25 million
It starts at 6AM on Saturday, in the cold, dark Foxboro morning, as the Fox team shows up to unload three 53-foot trucks. Stadiums don’t have much in the way of built-in A / V equipment, so Fox (and every other network) carries everything the crew will need for the weekend inside those trucks — the show has to be built and broken down every weekend. This Saturday, it has to be even faster: there's a college football game at 4PM.
Kevin Callahan, Fox’s director of technical operations, estimates Fox credentialed between 150 and 200 people for the weekend, from Troy Aikman and director Rich Russo to runners and microphone holders. The network brings in about $25 million worth of equipment, with thousands of individual parts. (Callahan is reluctant to even guess at the number: "It depends on how small you want to get," he says. "I mean, the production switcher alone has 1,000 buttons on it.") Callahan and his crew have to wire the entire stadium, rig up cameras and audio, and make sure hundreds of different parts are able to connect to each other. "This is actually a very well-oiled machine," he says. "The mobile units that we're using here were designed in 2005 and 2006 — at the time they were eight years ahead of their time."
In one truck, graphics and production. In another, 20 feet away in the concrete garage underneath the stands, replay and audio. Russo estimates he has 15 cameras and 13 tape machines this week, capturing and replaying angles from all over the stadium — there’s even a helicopter flying around shooting from above. The graphics team, eight or so young guys in polo shirts, is preparing more than 1,000 graphics, with every record or outcome accounted for. Rich Russo and producer Richie Zyontz talk to everyone through speakers and headsets, voicing their constant chatter to the 150-member Fox crew throughout the weekend. Colby Bourgeios, the team’s technical director, sits at his giant switcher ready to put any camera, any person, any replay on TV with the press of one of a thousand buttons. Audio consultant Fred Aldous watches and listens on his own console, making sure everything sounds as good as it looks — in stereo and 5.1-channel surround sound.
Eventually, nearly everyone says, you just learn to do it by feel.
If Aikman is the quarterback of the broadcast, Rich Russo is the head coach. He’s the director on Fox's A Crew, its best sports broadcast team. Ultimately, he's in charge of what viewers see on their TVs during a football game. He says his job is to make the viewer feel like they're sitting in the stands, seeing and hearing everything as if they're inside Gillette Stadium on this brisk Sunday afternoon. "You have to put yourself in the audience’s shoes," he says. "What does the viewer want to see?"
It’s equally a storytelling challenge and a technical one, and the technology is changing constantly. Inside a fourth truck at Gillette Stadium is the Cablecam, the flying camera that shoots behind the line of scrimmage during plays, sees huddles from above, and finds players in spots no other camera can. It’s been a staple of the Fox setup since 2003, and it's now a key piece of any NFL broadcast. "There's a lot of cameras here shooting stuff," says Cablecam VP Brett Crutcher, "but we can pick off certain shots that the other cameras maybe can't… we have the ability to get right in the guy’s face, and we usually get pretty good shots from there."
Every stadium is different, but the goal never changes — bring viewers into the stands
All 31 NFL arenas are different, and everything from stadium height to the type of lighting can affect the broadcast. (Light frequencies can clash with the high-frame-rate cameras, producing dark and light frames instead of a consistent shot — Callahan says Detroit causes problems every time.) But after years together, this crew knows the oddities of every one. Fred Aldous, Fox’s audio consultant, even has presets for every stadium on his enormous audio mixing console. "The colder it gets, the better off, because everybody bundles up… they're wearing a sound blanket, if you will." That’s why Aldous loves mixing in Green Bay. "This stadium," he says, pointing toward the field behind him, "it's nice because it's an open stadium." The sound escapes from the field, he says, rather than just reverberating throughout the stadium.
His setup changes every week, but Aldous’ goal is always the same. "I want the viewer at home to be a part of the audience in the stands, because the field of play never moves in front of you when you're in the stands," he says.
"I want them to feel like they're sitting in the crowd, so I put crowd 360 degrees around, my announcers in the center speaker, and fill in the front left and rights with my effects mix — that's kind of being an observer of a game." There are offensive linemen and coaches wearing mics, with others set up all over the field and stadium. "The HD picture is absolutely beautiful," Aldous says, "but without sound, without hearing the quarterback, hearing some of the hits, hearing the emotion of the crowd in everything, I don't think it would be nearly as good."
Troy Aikman is responsible for driving the broadcast, for actually telling viewers the game’s most important stories. The Hall-of-Fame quarterback turned superstar analyst spends Friday and Saturday with Russo and Zyontz, meeting with both teams and watching them practice. They learn about each team's game plan, and identify some of the key story lines for the game. The three men also spend hours together each week watching game film, making sure Zyontz and Russo are ready for everything Aikman might bring up on the broadcast.
This week, the stories write themselves, Zyontz says. "You have two of the great quarterbacks, future Hall-of-Famers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Tom Brady is standing there frustrated as heck: he doesn't have Gronkowski back, he has young receivers, and he looks across the field and Drew Brees has a plethora of riches. He's got Darren Sproles, he's got Jimmy Graham, he's got Marques Colston. That's interesting to me." Every camera angle is covered, every exciting player accounted for, every team’s tendencies analyzed.
But from the moment assistant director Rich Gross stands in the truck and says "20 to red," and Fox’s live feed shifts from the Los Angeles-based pregame show to Gillette Stadium, all that goes out the window. All there is is this game, this Sunday, on dozens of screens in front of Rich Russo's face. Thom Brennaman will describe the game as it happens, and Aikman will tell its stories — the ones he predicted and the many more he couldn’t. "It's instincts, it's reactions," Zyontz says, "and it happens really quick."
It's the fourth quarter, 2:24 remaining. New Orleans leads 27-23, but the Patriots have the ball. During a quick game-break to the game between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, a small square in the corner of the Fox broadcast shows Tom Brady walking onto the field. Then Foxboro comes back into focus, and we're back on Brady. This, Richie Zyontz is telling us, is the man to watch right now. He puts on his helmet, jogs calmly on to the field.
As Brady bends over center, Rich Russo zooms us out, switching to the standard sideline camera for the play. Brady drops back to about the 12 yard line, steps up, and heaves the ball down the field toward receiver Julian Edelman. The camera perfectly tracks the ball high into the air — and down into the arms of New Orleans cornerback Keenan Lewis. We watch briefly as Edelman wrestles him to the ground, then follow Lewis up the field as he celebrates with his teammates.
But after only a moment, Russo takes us back to Tom Brady. Tight on Brady's face, as his head drops — one of history’s great quarterbacks knows he's cost his team the game. He eventually breaks into a jog, and only then does the camera switch — to Bill Belichick, with a murderous grimace on his face. We go briefly back to Keenan Lewis dancing on the sidelines, before the Fox logo flashes, and a replay shows us Julian Edelman's entire failed route. Next, a close-up of the interception, with a look right at Keenan Lewis' face as he grabs the ball with his pink gloves.
Then it's back again to Tom Brady, as he shuts his eyes in disbelief and curses loudly at no one in particular. One last shot of Keenan Lewis getting high-fives and helmet taps from his coaches and teammates, one more Fox logo, and it's time for the Saints to take the field.
It’s more than a dozen live shots, replays, and graphics, and it all happens in 71 seconds.
Richie Zyontz likes to talk about stories, about subtleties. The things you might see from the stands or on the sidelines that you’d never notice from your couch. "The guys that have been with me for years know," he says, "don't sell me a reaction where the guy's self-servingly acting like an asshole. Show me the shot where they come to the bench and they don't realize cameras are on them, and there's a little wink. A little smile, a little tap on the helmet from the coach — those are the shots I like to see."
"When the play's over," Paul Duda says, "we'll get it on the air almost immediately. Before the guy stands up to go back to the huddle, [Zyontz] will know which replay machine to go to." Duda and his team are constantly pitching replays, watching which camera had the best angle on a play, and they’re able to play it back in real time — Zyontz or Russo picks an angle, Colby Bourgeios presses a button, and the replay is live. Each tape machine is like an always-recording camera, ready to play back anything at any time. Until it’s time for the next play, anyway.
This Fox crew will broadcast the Super Bowl in February, and every week leading up to it is an experiment with some new tweak or technology. Most are tried and ignored, or integrated only in small ways. "Ultimately, when it comes down to it," says Callahan, "everything that we're trying to do is about telling a story, and giving the producers and directors the tools that they need to tell that story." Last year, Fox focused on integrating the parabolic mics that now roam the sideline, pointing at players and plays to get hyper-focused audio. Previously it's been graphics, and in 1996 it was the Fox Box — Fox was the first network to have the score displayed at all times in the top corner of the screen, and even other networks refer to it as the Fox Box. This year it's 4K, as Fox seeks a perfect and incontrovertible replay system.
New technology has to be useful, but mostly it has to be fast
Fox has been using 4K cameras for three years, but not to broadcast the game, which the crew says would be pointless given current bandwidth and TV technology. It’s all about replay. "We can do things like zoom in, look at a guy's foot… we can see precisely a nice, solid foot, and a line right there, and know that the guy is in," says Colby Bourgeios, Fox's technical director. This year is about fine-tuning — finding the right camera, the right lens, the right capture and extraction devices. But even when 4K works convincingly, Callahan says, "we need it to be the first or second replay. If we were to sit there and have a 4K replay that we could show two plays later… and that would have reversed the official’s call, well, that’s awful." He won’t add anything to the Fox broadcast that will slow it down, or impede it in any way.
The system as it exists now is astonishing in its immediacy. Russo, Zyontz, and Bourgeios speak in often unintelligible shorthand, and seem to mostly just know exactly what the others want. The whole Fox A crew has been together for years, some for decades, and like any dynastic team there’s a sense of trust and calm that Rich Russo says is crucial to the whole process. "Everyone gets excited, and you get excited, and you want things to be perfect, but you know that you have such a great team here… you have to be able to listen."
That’s why, as the Patriots and Saints near kickoff, no one in Fox's crew ever seems nervous, or overwhelmed. It's just the opposite, in fact. They live for these moments. "There's nothing like the adrenaline of being part of a live broadcast," Zyontz says. "You just don't know how a given game is going to go. So you can talk to broadcasters and former athletes: there's nothing like playing, but the closest thing you can get to playing or coaching is being in TV and covering an NFL game."
Fred Aldous agrees. "When you hear that three-count going into the open of the show, I'll tell you what: the rush is absolutely incredible, knowing there is no going back, there are no retakes, you have to do it right, do it right the first time. I still get that rush even after all these years." He shows me his arm. "God, I'm starting to get goosebumps now."
It’s the end of the game. Tom Brady’s just thrown a 17-yard touchdown to Kenbrell Thompkins, winning a seemingly lost game with five seconds to spare. Nearly half the game’s 68,756 fans left early, and the cheers from the parking lot and the highway drown out the ones from the stadium. The replay — a perfect shot of the moment, Thompkins snatching the ball in the back-left corner of the end zone — loops on the giant screens in Gillette, and presumably on every TV in every bar in Boston. There will be much celebrating tonight.
Underneath the stadium, the Fox crew starts to break down, to load its massive production back into 53-foot trucks. In two hours, they'll be gone. And next week, they'll pull into Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and do it all again.
That's just what they do on Sundays.