The Evolution of Sports Video Replay Technology

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And Some Tales From The Low-Tech Worlds of Soccer and Golf

Review and replay technology have become commonplace in the NBA, NHL and NFL. Major League Baseball has begun reviewing close-call home runs and is reportedly considering a plan to allow umpires to review fair and foul ball calls and trapped ball catches in 2012.

But the world’s most popular sport, soccer, is lagging behind. FIFA has resisted calls to develop a policy for reviewing goals.

Last summer Sports Illustrated Senior Writer L. Jon Wertheim was in London covering Wimbledon. The tennis tournament uses Hawk-Eye technology to determine if balls are in or out. During his down time, he watched the World Cup soccer match between England and Germany.

“This behemoth sporting event, bigger than the Super Bowl, bigger than the Olympics, the whole country stops to watch this game and there’s this dispute over whether [England] scored a goal. And they ended up botching the call. It was a goal, it had crossed this line, and the officials thought it hadn’t,” Wertheim said. "I was just marveling at how you have this huge sports property that’s resisting technology and sort of backwards, conservative tennis is the head of the field.”

Wertheim is the co-author of a book called Scorecasting that analyzes blown calls and other factors that contribute to the outcomes of games. He says there’s too much at stake to leave goal calls to chance.

“One botched call has a huge impact. I mean we’re talking about games that are often decided by one goal. You miss a ball and strike call and it’s unfortunate, but seldom does a game turn on that. With soccer the stakes are so high for a missed call.”

(UPDATE: In December, FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that goal-line review technology could be implemented in 2012.)

Wertheim says another aspect of soccer that would could be changed dramatically with some technology is the game clock. Wertheim’s and Scorecasting co-author Tobias Moskowitz found that the injury time awarded varies significantly depending on whether the home team is ahead or behind in a game.

“The officials just kind of make up this time and it’s all over the place. And they don’t have to necessarily go back and account for it,” Wertheim said. “Imagine in the NBA if they were like, ‘We’re not going to tell you why we chose this, but keep playing for 2 minutes and 45 seconds.’ Based on nothing, that’s the number we’ve come up with.”

Golf is known for its strict set of rules and its reluctance to change them. The sport has also been slow to welcome technological changes that could affect the outcomes of tournaments.

However, golf has been dealing with its own version of official review for decades. Golf rules sticklers regularly call the PGA to inform them of violations they’ve noticed while watching tournaments on TV at home.

Sports Illustrated writer Alan Shipnuck says viewers’ calls can turn a minor penalty in a major one.

“If they sign their scorecard and then the penalty comes to light they wind up getting disqualified from the event because they haven’t added the penalty stroke into their score,” Shipnuck said. “It’s become, in some ways, a very controversial action because the penalty often doesn’t fit the crime.”

The process is complicated by the fact that the PGA does not have an official system for reporting rules violations.

“I’ve heard of viewers who have just picked up the phone and called the host golf course. They’ve gotten some assistant pro in a bag room somewhere. He doesn’t know who to talk to or they wind up getting the fitness trailer,” Shipnuck said.  “There’s not a defined way for fans or spectators or someone’s ex-wife or whoever it may be to phone in a complaint or a question.”

Shipnuck says the improvements in golf telecasts may end up forcing the sport to make a change.

“I think the golf world has realized that with high-definition and super-slow-motion replays, more and more little ticky-tack violations are going to come to light,” Shipnuck said. “In some ways to the naked eye they’re not even obvious to the player. So there is this groundswell to change how these are dealt with. The penalties will still be incurred, but trying to avoid disqualification is really what the governing bodies are seeking.”

And in Shipnuck’s view, the age of real-time, omnipresent social media may be the perfect time for the sport of golf to make a technological leap.

“They could do something more whether it’s a Twitter feed, whether it’s an 800 phone number. Have more open lines of communications. And maybe have a little ticker along the bottom [of the TV screen], ‘Joe Schmoe from Boise thought that Phil Mickelson moved a twig that she shouldn’t have. What do you think?’ The interactive nature of this sort of thing is unique to golf," Shipnuck said.

"The audience is contracting and the sport is trying to find its identity post-Tiger Woods. The viewer at home can’t call in traveling on Shaquille O’Neal, but golf there’s just a different intimacy and a different back and forth between the fans and the players.”

This segment aired on June 25, 2011.

Doug Tribou Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.



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