All the Gear Super Bowl 50 Refs Will Use to Call the Game
Calling a professional football game is a high-pressure job. With over 100 million people watching Super Bowl 50 on TV, referees and NFL officials know this game is no exception. On Sunday, there will be seven men on the field officiating the incredibly high-stakes game. And they’d better not screw it up.
Luckily, they aren’t alone. An arsenal of tools are at their disposal—some are super sophisticated, while others are dead-simple solutions.
So what exactly goes into a Super Bowl ref’s toolbelt? Here’s what they’re working with come Sunday, from the super high-tech to the found-on-store-shelves.
1. The NFL Central Command Center
The Art McNally Game Day Central at the NFL headquarters in New York, named in honor of the man who was the director of officiating at the NFL for 23 years, opened its doors last year. Inside, it houses almost 90 monitors that connect to every NFL stadium in the country, watching every play at a variety of angles, so each decision can be substantiated with a deluge of video evidence. (At least, that’s the idea: There’s been criticism of the command center’s approach to calling games, but the NFL stands by its process.)
“Before last season, officials were sort of on their own,” says NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle told WIRED. “And if there was a call or a play that we would like to discuss that could have gone better or differently, that would wait till the following week when we would review all the games with all of the officials.”
McKenna-Doyle says the command center gives refs a way to see what we’re all seeing—you know, all those plays that leave you screaming at the TV. “It’s really hard when you’re an official and you are watching in real-time, while the rest of the world gets to watch instant replay,” she says. “We wanted to make sure that the all the angles that the official is seeing under the hood at the stadium could also be seen in New York at the same time, so we made sure all the video from every stadium and every broadcast got back to New York.”
The command center also has the part time job of improving game time efficiency—because that can build in more ad time. “We’ve cut the time in the game a bit and our ratings go up when the games are just the right amount of time,” says McKenna-Doyle. “The game has gotten so much more faster and more complicated, and so the system had to come along with it.”
2. Push-to-talk Headsets
All refs are linked together with push-to-talk headsets made by Vokkaro, a company that specializes in radio communications for pro sports. All the headsets are networked with the NFL’s own proprietary software. If you’re the head referee, you also have a microphone that can speak to everyone at the stadium. At Levi’s Stadium come Super Bowl Game Day, that totals to over 70,000 people—over half the population of Santa Clara.
In the future, the NFL is also plans to switch to VoIP wireless headsets, which would mean the ability to send data to the field, not just voice.
3. Clock Control
Perhaps one of the most powerful pieces of tech is a special clock controller. There are dedicated game-clock and play-clock operators for every NFL game—one on the field, and one with a skybox view of the action. One of the officials, who sits with a certified athletic trainer in the “Eye in the Sky” box above the stadium, also has a clock controller that can start and stop the official game clock, only to be used if he sees an injured player. It has the power to stop the scoreboard clock, all the digital media that’s running the game, and the broadcast clock, a responsibility typically entrusted a scoreboard operations team of over 30 people to manage, supervised by the side judge on the field. Now that’s power.
4. The Hood
It might seem like it’s just a fabric-covered box, but it’s so much more: It’s a fabric-covered box where a referee can watch instant replay video of the game. OK, there is more though: Using the NFL’s own proprietary software, NFL Vision, the hood is directly linked to the command center in New York. And this year CBS is using over 70 cameras to capture the Super Bowl, so there’s a lot of footage to be seen. To help curate, part of the command center will sift through film to send relevant videos to the hood as quickly as possible.
5. The Whistles
These shrill whistles are critically important to calling the game. The vast majority of NFL refs use the Fox 40 Classic Whistle, which gets as loud as 115 decibels; that’s loud enough for the entire stadium to hear without amplification for over a mile away. Some referees are now using an even louder model that gets as loud as 120 decibels—louder than a jackhammer. Suffice it to say, these aren’t your ordinary whistles.
6…ish. Coming Soon: Tablets
The days of the hood could be numbered. During the preseason this year, referees had a chance to test tablets that may soon be available for in-game replays. They’re already being used by coaches and players to peep the opposition’s formations and draw up plays. But these aren’t your standard-issue Surface Pro 3s; they lack live Internet connections, and for the time being, coaches and players are only allowed to view in-game stills, not video. Even so, it’s an improvement over what they used to work with.
“What players and coaches had before were images that would be sent down to a printer and they would be collated by offense, defense, and special teams,” McKenna-Doyle said. “And between a series someone would run a binder out to the field.” Now the NFL has partnered with Microsoft to provide Surface tablets, which let coaches and players annotate on top of photos, digitally dissect defensive schemes, and zoom in on angles captured during plays. The photos are transmitted wirelessly to the tablets via the stadium’s extremely high capacity network. Still, snafus happen: During this year’s AFC championship game, the Microsoft Surfaces used by the New England Patriots stopped working temporarily.
As to whether or not the refs will be toting tablets, McKenna said that it’s not a matter of technical capability, but whether the NFL thinks it’s actually going to be a positive addition to the game. After all, with 300 pound players running around everywhere and over 70,000 screaming fans surrounding the field, there’s really no replacing the relative peace and quiet of hiding under that hood.