Best line from an NFL game: the one for first downs


With this being the designated week on the calendar for being grateful, it might not be a bad idea to say a word of thanks to the sports media gods for the presence and the work of Bill Squadron and Stan Honey.

And who are they, you ask? As two of the heads of Silicon Valley-based SporTVision, Honey and Squadron are responsible for that line that indicates where a team has to go to get a first down.

Next to the constant score box, the first-down line is the best technological advancement in sports television in years, mostly because, much like its inventors, the line doesn't call attention to itself.

"We're trying to make it so we enhance the broadcast without taking you away from the game. We never want to take the viewer away from the video," said Squadron, on a recent visit to Baltimore, where the line made its debut last September during a Ravens-Cincinnati Bengals game.

The line, which premiered on ESPN's "Sunday Night Football" telecasts before spreading to ABC, Fox and CBS, has been universally praised, a definite improvement over the flak SporTVision took for its previous invention, the glowing hockey puck.

Here's how it works, in a nutshell: Computers are attached to game cameras positioned above the playing field at the 30-yard lines and at midfield, and send information back to computers in a production truck near the main game production truck in the bowels of a stadium.

The camera's computers read the tilt, pan and focus of the camera 30 times a second to tell the main computers in the truck where the first-down line should be placed on the screen relative to the picture the camera is sending back.

From there, the computers in the truck read the screen carefully to ensure that the line is superimposed onto the field and doesn't appear to become a part of the uniforms of players or referees.

It's a tricky situation, made even trickier when a team, say Philadelphia or Green Bay, two teams that wear green, is playing. Then, the computer must read the color scheme of the screen carefully to make sure that the line attaches itself to the field, not a jersey.

"We have to look at every pixel and decide if it's a player or grass," said Honey, the chief technology officer.

Most of the top officials of the 4-year-old SporTVision came from News Corp., the parent company of Fox, and while they helped develop "FoxTrax," the name for the controversial glowing puck, it was ESPN that grabbed the first-down technology. Fox and ABC use their line for their main games.

"We felt like this would be perfect for both the serious and the casual football fans, and so far it's been a big hit," said Jed Drake, the ESPN executive in charge of remote production.

It has been so popular that a rival firm, PVI, developed its own version for CBS, which generates an orange line, as opposed to the yellow line used by ESPN and Fox. SporTVision has filed a lawsuit against PVI, claiming that its New Jersey-based competitors have infringed on its trademark.

The SporTVision folks aren't done yet, either. ESPN, which also uses the line on its main college football games each Saturday, premiered a new SporTVision creation, the "SuperStrator," which combines the technology of the first-down line with that of the telestrator.

Down the line, the soft-spoken Squadron and Honey see more inventions coming, such as ones that will help illustrate which car is leading in a race or that might measure the leap of a basketball player.

"We're not done yet," said Honey, with a knowing grin.

Let's hope he's right.

Grand slam coverage

The presence of Payne Stewart will be felt throughout TNT's coverage of the PGA's "Grand Slam of Golf," airing tonight and tomorrow from Hawaii.

The four-player, match-play tournament pits the winners of this year's Grand Slam events against each other, with a $400,000 prize to the victor. Stewart, who died last month when his plane veered off course en route to Houston from Orlando, Fla., was to have been a part of the tournament, after his win in the U.S. Open in June.

Instead, the golfers and the television team will pay homage to Stewart's memory.

"Really, throughout the event we want to have a nice balance, and we want to recognize the role of Payne as a person who qualified for this event," said Kevin O'Malley, a Turner Sports executive. "By the way, he kind of reveled in this event. He played in the Grand Slam and was certainly one of the people who didn't act like it didn't matter who won. He was a very competitive player."

Davis Love, the 1997 PGA Championship winner, will replace Stewart, and face Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal in one match; in the other, British Open champ Paul Lawrie will face Tiger Woods, who won this year's PGA Championship. Same-day taped coverage airs each night at 7 o'clock, with Ernie Johnson as host and Bobby Clampett and David Feherty on analysis.

Quick hoops hitters

Amid all the football, there will be some solid basketball in the next couple of days. The Maryland men meet Kentucky tomorrow in a Preseason National Invitation Tournament semifinal at 7 p.m., with a second semifinal at 9 p.m. TBS airs a terrific NBA doubleheader tomorrow, as the Portland Trail Blazers meet the Minnesota Timberwolves at 8 p.m., followed by the Los Angeles Lakers playing host to the Utah Jazz.

On Thanksgiving night, TNT will air the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers game, and as a bonus, a camera will be positioned in the home of studio analyst Kenny Smith's mother, where Smith will be. Here's hoping Uncle Joe doesn't make a swipe for the drumstick while the red light is on.

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