The tech that makes the Super Bowl super

Before the Steelers and Cardinals battle it out in the big game on Sunday, the NFL, NBC, and other companies deploy all kinds of technology few will ever know about or see.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

Correction: This post initially misstated the company providing the tracking technology being used to provide security and safety for NFL personnel. The company is US Fleet Tracking.

The NFL has been using Twitter to spread the word about the latest and greatest happenings in Tampa during Super Bowl week. The feed is just one of a number of technologies being used at the Super Bowl that are little known or seen. Twitter

At its core, football represents the polar opposite of technology: A bunch of large men run around a field, battling for position and the control of a small pigskin ball.

Of course, the production of an actual NFL game requires lots of technology--from the headsets coaches use to communicate, to the computers used to calculate statistics to the HD cameras that record the contest for the viewing audience.

When it comes to the Super Bowl, one of the biggest sporting events in the world, technology has always played a very central role, and this year is no exception.

Indeed, as the NFL gets ready to put on the big game this Sunday in Tampa, Fla., between the five-time champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the perennial bottom-dwelling Arizona Cardinals, the league and its many partners will be rolling out a wide variety of technology, much of which has been used in the past, but some of which is all new.

And a good deal of that is behind-the-scenes tech that most fans never see, would never think of, or is new and niche enough that they will never even know it existed.

For example, even though Twitter has become a mainstay of the Web 2.0 world, it is still a mystery to most people. But the NFL decided to embrace the microblogging service, and has already rolled out its Super Bowl Twitter feed. There, an unknown number of people have been posting regular updates for the last few days about the goings-on in Tampa--the big press events, the behind-the-scenes developments, all kinds of football-related observations that fans may or may not appreciate.

"Midnight at the hotel bar, no celebs," a Wednesday night tweet began. "Oh wait...there's Donovan McNabb! I'm sure he's still shocked he's not preparing for Sunday's game."

"Wow," another began. "Sully and the crew of US Airways Flight 1549 will be honored during Super Bowl XLIII pregame! Very cool."

To be sure, a Super Bowl Twitter feed isn't the most advanced or glamorous thing in the world, but to the NFL, it's a way to share a little bit of the flavor of the excitement gathering around the game.

"Our digital media group has been working furiously to find new ways to help our fans experience Super Bowl week," said NFL.com spokesperson Joanna Hunter in an e-mail, "even if they can't travel to Tampa Bay to be there in person."

Yet there were just 1,940 followers for the Super Bowl Twitter feed as of Thursday afternoon, a tiny number when compared to the millions of fans who will watch the game on TV, and a sign that this technology is, even now, something that has risen to the attention of only the smallest number of people.

Another online innovation the NFL is touting is a system its SuperBowl.com site employed for the league's annual Media Day on Tuesday. Online viewers were able to select from five different cameras filming the event and watch the player they wanted to see speak.

Again, a small development, but one the league hopes enhanced the overall experience of its fans.

What viewers will see
While the Super Bowl game is the main event for football fans, watching the elaborate and expensive commercials made to air specifically during the contest has long been a favorite of even the most sports-averse.

This year should be no exception. But for the first time, TV viewers will be seeing two extremely technologically cutting edge ads, modern 3D commercials for SoBe drinks and for NBC's Chuck, as well as a 90-second preview of the forthcoming 3D Dreamworks film, Monsters vs. Aliens.

According to Steve Schklair, the CEO of 3ality Digital's technology division, 3ality Digital Systems--the company whose cameras were used to film the included live-action footage--all of the 3D spots will be possible to watch without special glasses, but will be much richer with pairs of 3D specs that are being handed out all over the country at retail outlets where SoBe drinks are sold.

Instead of the traditional green and red 3D glasses, these are yellow and blue and, Schklair said, different than the eyewear required to watch the new style of 3D films being shown in theaters around the country these days.

Schklair added that the value of showing 3D ads and trailers during the Super Bowl comes from the fact that research has shown that the retention rate for messages put out in 3D is far higher than for traditional 2D. Further, he said, the Super Bowl 3D ads will be a good test case for potentially running 3D trailers in movie theaters in the future.

The NFL and 3ality have a previous history, as well. In December, the NFL used 3ality's technology to broadcast a regular season game between the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers in 3D.

When it comes to TV, of course, the biggest piece of the Super Bowl puzzle is the broadcast of the game itself. This year, NBC has the coveted rights to the NFL championship, and, as it did with its recent coverage of the Beijing Olympics, the Peacock Network is putting huge resources into the project.

For the most part, viewers won't see many differences during the Super Bowl from NBC's regular-season Sunday night NFL broadcasts. One small innovation will be a new on-screen graphic.

"The biggest change...viewers will see is a slightly refined graphic look," Broadcasting & Cable reported, "as NBC will have individual player stats briefly pop onscreen to replace the 'score bug' in an effort to reduce on-screen clutter."

To put on its broadcast, NBC will have 200 crew at the game, and more than 450 total production and engineering staff in Tampa. And the effort will feature 52 high-definition cameras, 45 vehicles (including control trucks, mobile units, office trailers and a horse trailer), 24 digital video replay sources, eight digital post-production facilities (five Avid suites and three Final Cut Pro suites), 20 hand-held cameras, five robotic cameras, two RF hand-held cameras, one "cable-cam" camera that is suspended above the field, 50 miles of camera and microphone cable, 93 microphones, and much more.

"Specialty cameras for the Super Bowl include robotic units on the goalposts and in the hallways outside each team's locker room," Broadcasting & and Cable reported, "dedicated goal-line cameras, overhead Cable-cams and X-Mo ultra-high-frame-rate cameras from Inertia Unlimited that will be used to deliver incredibly detailed slow-motion replays. The X-Mo cameras will give frame-by-frame views of both the goal line, to gauge whether a touchdown has been scored, and the sideline, to see exactly where a player stepped out of bounds."

What viewers won't see
For the NFL, supporting all its efforts in Tampa is a very computing-heavy project. As such, the league has partnered with IBM and is using a series of four IBM BladeCenter S chassis, one at each of four venues the NFL has set up around Tampa: one for general media and PR, one for the league's offices, one for game-day media and PR, and one for credentialing and in-house security.

According to Jonathan Kelly, director of computing infrastructure for the NFL, the league chose the IBM blade servers because they offer a high degree of mobility--the blades are briefcase sized--and very quick set up.

Each chassis has two of the blades, which offers all-important redundancy, Kelly said.

"It's about time criticality and high availability," he said. "If one host goes down, the other immediately picks up."

The NFL is using a series of BladeSensor S chassis to power the computing at its four venues in Tampa during Super Bowl week. For the NFL, the blade servers allow quick setup, high mobility, and all-important redundancy. IBM

For the NFL, the IBM blade servers are a clean break from what the league used in many previous years: large numbers of individual servers and computers, all of which took a lot of time to set up and and a lot of manpower to operate.

The blades run VMware's virtual platform and give the league the ability to run virtualized operations at each of its four venues in Tampa, said Joe Manto, the NFL's vide president of information technology.

In 2008, the league did run beta versions of the IBM blade architecture, but this year, it is standardizing on full production versions, and plans to roll them out after the Super Bowl for each of the 32 NFL teams.

And lest the players themselves not benefit from technology--or at least be involved with it--a company called US Fleet Tracking says it is helping to ensure the safety and security of the dozens of "key NFL and entertainment personalities" as they are bused from location to location in Tampa this week.

US Fleet Tracking's technology is being used to track the location and movements of the players, as well as Bruce Springsteen--the halftime performer--around the Super Bowl city. The idea is that by employing tracking devices, the NFL's Gameday Operations personnel can be kept aware of the precise location of all these people.

"Through real-time information updates, security officials can ensure that the proper authorities and escorts are always in the right place at the right time," a statement from the network provider, Kore Telematics, said. "Officials also have the ability to respond instantly if any vehicle leaves the expected route, becomes delayed or is subject to other unexpected events."

In the Gameday Operations area, then, NFL officials will be monitoring the players and other VIPs in real time on six 42-inch LCD TVs, and they will get updates on the locations of their charges every five seconds. Further, they'll be able to see precisely where the various vehicles they're watching are, down to accuracy of a quarter mile per hour and eight inches.

Whether dozens of highly-paid, young professional football players in a town full of parties and nonstop entertainment will want to have their movements tracked to within an accuracy of eight inches is another matter.

Still, with all this technology in place, the game will commence on Sunday, just as it has on 42 previous occasions, with the entirely low-tech flip of a coin, and the kicking of an inflated pigskin ball. When all is said and done, it's nice to know that behind the many layers of the very latest technology available, the Super Bowl is, at its roots, just a kids' game played by a bunch of men.

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