As the new NFL season opens, Radio World takes a special in-depth look at the program where football and RF engineering meet.
It was Jan. 29, 1995 at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Fla., the site of Super Bowl XXIX. The game was a triumph for the San Francisco 49ers but a confusing mess behind the scenes as the teams, support services and worldwide media attempted to use their wireless communications devices.
The elaborate halftime show, an ambitious “Indiana Jones”-themed extravaganza featuring Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett, required precise communication as well. Radio frequencies designed to support a few hundred devices at any given moment were crowded with thousands of official and unofficial devices, each vying for a tiny slice of the spectrum.
Afterwards, Jim Steeg, the National Football League’s senior vice president of special events, had 364 days to address the situation before the next Super Bowl.
He called NFL Films Vice President, Executive in Charge of Production Jay Gerber and asked him to find a way to resolve the interference issues.
As a longtime extra class “ham” radio operator, N3AW, Gerber understood the complexity at stake for managing radio frequencies. And because he managed a multitude of simultaneous international Super Bowl broadcasts each year, he had the grace under pressure required to handle the needs of the key stakeholders for this most important day.
Still, it was an ambitious undertaking. No one had attempted to frequency coordinate an NFL national sporting event. Super Bowl XXX would be the first.
The game would be held at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. Gerber enlisted Karl Voss, an engineer at local news TV station KPNX and Arizona’s frequency coordinator, to help. Voss, Gerber and electronic design engineer Harvey Shuhart of Control Dynamics Corp. formed the first NFL frequency coordination team.
Their plan was simple: Respond to interference issues and resolve them immediately. They met that challenge; hundreds of users were organized and coordinated, despite initial reluctance to share spectrum use. But issues were rampant at first.
For example, game day communications between the coach and quarterback would have been disrupted by maintenance crew communications. The Game Day Coordination team eventually found the source of this rogue signal, a home-built repeater with a cellphone input and an output to handie-talkie radios, which allowed the crew chief to reach his staff in the stadium. The GDC team heard the chief give out his cellphone number, which allowed them to track him down and shut down the repeater.
After Super Bowl XXX, Gerber and his group had a monumental task: developing and implementing a process to coordinate hundreds of key stakeholders and make it work for future Super Bowls.
Work would start weeks before each game. The league sent notices to all possible RF users to let them know they would need to participate. The GDC team, which soon included Ralph Beaver managing RF use at the media center, began to map the frequency ranges used by NFL licensees and news organizations to allocate the appropriate number of microphone channels.
These organizations were required to provide the GDC with a full equipment list as well as contact information for the crew and any additional issues of concern.
A radio tagging system was devised and modified over the years to help identify cleared transmitting devices. One of the images accompanying this article shows an earlier version that worked well but has since been modified to include frequency and other pertinent information.
On Game Day, to enforce compliance, the GDC team sets up direction-finding stations inside the stadium in the end zone and along the sidelines, as well as outside in the frequency coordination headquarters office trailer.
The DF equipment includes an Icom Communications receiver, a Communications Specialties PL/DPL/DTMF decoder, a two-way radio for the GDC DF team to manage internal communications and a set of headphones, as well as a Doppler Systems DF unit and DF antenna designed and produced for this purpose by Bill Ruck, the northern California frequency coordination chairman. Ruck was instrumental at the outset of the GDC program in assisting teams along the West Coast.
An earlier Super Bowl RF tag system Direction Finding Antenna
The program uses Hewlett-Packard spectrum analyzers to examine each piece of RF equipment that enters a stadium perimeter. In addition, any device brought into a stadium for game day must be registered with the GDC and assigned frequencies and schedule constraints.
With limited spectrum availability — especially at the Super Bowl, where there might be more than 10,000 RF devices sharing a pool of approximately 4,000 frequencies — the goal is to coordinate a frequency sharing plan. For example, a frequency used during game play might not be needed during halftime, and would be reassigned to those who need a communication or broadcast channel at that moment. This requires a tremendous amount of planning and real-time coordination, even when everything runs smoothly.
Because of the amount of screening needed before and during the game, Gerber enlisted a team of assistant GDCs by recruiting local amateur radio operators as volunteer coordinators. He knew that hams would have the skills necessary with little training to operate DF equipment, attenuators, frequency counters and other related RF equipment.
ALL SEASON LONG
Based on the success of early Super Bowl coordination, Gerber proposed that a similar process become part of every NFL event, including pre-season and regular season games, the draft, the NFL Combine, even games played abroad. NFL management eventually accepted the proposal.
Gerber began working to provide frequency coordination for regular-season games. He turned to the Society of Broadcast Engineers and worked with then-President Ed Miller, Executive Director John Poray and Rick Edwards, SBE’s vice president and chairman of its frequency coordination committee, to assemble a list of volunteer coordinators for every NFL team. The candidates were interviewed and trained on what the league needed to keep the communications channels clear and functional throughout its events.
With the help of the SBE and Edwards in particular, primary and backup coordinators were identified for every league venue. Eventually, some stadiums required more than two coordinators. Now there are as many as four supporting certain teams, like the Colts and Broncos.
The league allocated budgets to pay coordinators a small fee for expenses and purchase of required equipment. This included a frequency counter, communications radio, laptop with proprietary database, spectrum analyzer and direction finding equipment. (The DF gear was a mix of homebrew and professionally made; see the accompanying photos.) In addition, uniform shirts, hats, jackets and coats were provided to make the GDC recognizable and part of an official NFL operating team.
In the early days, RF users from local, as well as national and international, networks were slow to respond to coordination efforts. Meanwhile, the use of wireless devices increased exponentially, on and off the field. These include wireless microphones, in-ear monitors, camera controllers, telemetry, intercoms, digital cameras and walkie-talkies — not just for the teams but for stadium and team operations, food vendors, media and other stakeholders. One team explored adding wireless devices for fans to rent on game day and use to follow the game, watch replays and even order food.
As frequency coordination became an important part of game day operations, the various stakeholders began to push for more involvement in the process.
A head coach called Gerber one day to ask that the GDC arrive at the stadium six hours before kickoff so that his equipment could be checked for interference to make sure his game plan wouldn’t “go to pot” if someone showed up at the last minute on their frequency. Because GDCs were mandated and agreed to be there two hours before the game — and because last-minute issues can show up at any point, even with advance coordination — Jay suggested that the coach contact the Game Day Coordinator directly to work things out. The GDC worked with the coach to formulate a plan that made him comfortable that his communications system would be operational for the whole game.
At every NFL venue, there are signs notifying RF users that they must coordinate. The GDC name and contact information are on the sign, which has been weatherproofed and hung in strategic locations. The league informed all networks and media RF operations that coordination would be mandatory, with severe penalties for non-coordination violations.
For example, it was established and supported by NFL security that any non-coordinated entity, which the GDCs referred to as a “CoordNot,” would have their wireless equipment removed and held in stadium security, though they would be allowed to use a “wired” microphone if it was a “first offense.” Repeat offenders were not given such accommodations.
GDCs were required to keep a list of who did not meet the coordination requirements throughout the season. This was published and repeat offenders had their credentials removed, their wireless equipment held in security and themselves escorted from the stadium. Equipment could be retrieved only two hours after the final game whistle was blown. This provided assurance that they would not be able to participate in post-game interviews.
Word spread quickly throughout the industry, which helped reduce the number of “CoordNots” at all NFL events.
Of course, the Super Bowl involves its own set of coordination requirements.
For example, all wireless operating entities are requested to coordinate weeks before the game rather than the standard 24 hours. Every RF user is asked to attend an “RF War Games” on the Thursday before the game, during which every wireless entity turns on its equipment simultaneously to see if anyone would experience interference, or be “shot down.” These rehearsals always reveal issues that must be resolved.
Even after War Games were implemented, sometimes things didn’t go smoothly. At a Super Bowl in Tampa, a news organization learned that the frequency they’d requested was not available. The crew contacted their equipment vendor for a new frequency to be installed, but instead of reprogramming the radio to a clear frequency, the vendor somehow shifted the frequency slightly without clearing it with the GDC group.
The result was a programming disaster. The frequency they were now transmitting on blocked the live video stream from a B2 stealth bomber flying over the stadium during ceremonies after the national anthem, a video stream that was supposed to be transmitted worldwide in real time. The stream was blocked and viewers never saw it.
Officials from the FBI, FAA, FCC and network immediately converged on the GDC office trailer demanding to know what had happened. After DF-ing the frequency, the team found the rogue transmitter and shut it down.
At another Super Bowl, during the NFL tailgate party for ticket holders and dignitaries, a well-known band showed up with newly installed radios utilizing frequencies that interfered with game operations, including coach’s communications. Because they were uncooperative, the league authorized the GDC to shut them down if they didn’t change frequencies. Karl Voss saved the day by personally re-tuning their equipment to an acceptable frequency. The band later apologized profusely; as it turned out they didn’t know how to change frequencies themselves.
At the Super Bowl, facilities are set up to aid in on-site coordination. Every RF user must enter the stadium through the RF check-in operation to certify that its equipment is clean and coordinated; they are checked for transient signals and spurs from dirty frequency modules.
This step is especially important, to identify the many crews and on-camera personalities who arrive on Game Day and did not participate in the War Games, have not been coordinated and must be accommodated as best as possible on site. To help, coordination and new frequency assignments are allocated in the Media Center as well as at RF check-in at the stadium.
This can be challenging. The media entrance and RF check-in at the Super Bowl are crucial but can be time-consuming. Crews trying to get around these delays have been caught trying to enter the stadium through gates meant for fans. Fortunately, the GDC crew has coordinators at every stadium entrance; they stop any crew with RF equipment and redirect them to the media entrance. The GDC team has discovered on-camera talent trying to hide wireless equipment in briefcases and other disguises to avoid the RF check-in process. These crews are always caught and penalized, and in instances of blatant disregard may be shut down completely with the help of NFL security.
Checking a parabolic dish CBS parabolic crew during tests
The GDC team was so diligent in tracking down violators that they were able to assist NFL security in identifying trespassers. Once, a woman tried to enter the stadium illegally dressed in what looked like a police outfit, with black pants and a black shirt with the word “police” decaled on the back. She carried an HT on her belt, making her look official, but the GDC noted that the radio did not have the mandatory tag on the antenna indicating a cleared radio. The trespasser proceeded to work her way around the bicycle rack barriers at the end of the tent into the stadium, where she was stopped by the GDC, who asked her to wait to clear her radio, as it was not one of the law enforcement-tagged units. It was obviously a rogue radio that had not been cleared. The GDC contacted NFL security and the woman was detained — all because an alert volunteer had noticed the absence of a little tag on an antenna.
KEEP IT CLEAN
Even today, almost 21 years after the start of the program, issues arise that demonstrate the value of coordination efforts.
At Super Bowl 50, AT&T contacted the onsite coordination office with a complaint that their cellular operation was being interfered with to the extent of it being nonfunctional — certainly an enormous issue given the thousands of wireless phone users on site.
ABOUT JAY GERBER
Jay Gerber is accustomed to unique and challenging projects. His list of accomplishments include capturing the “Immaculate Reception” and Lynn Swann’s “Kangaroo Catch” on film, and managing construction of a $15 million state-of-the-art video facility for NFL Films.
He designed the video system to emulate how teams used coaching film, and he led the conversion of film operations to video by all the NFL teams. He designed the league’s first instant replay system, which consisted of several monitors and two VHS dynamic tracking player/recorders installed at every team venue.
He helped develop the helmet communications system in conjunction with electronic design engineer Harvey Shuhart of Control Dynamics Corp. Gerber and Shuhart also hold a patent for an innovative whistle detector system, developed at the request of Art McNally, then-NFL head of officials, to enable a replay decision based on when the whistle was blown. The detector identified which of the seven officials had blown a whistle and graphically indicated it in all network and replay booth recordings. In a playoff game test, a controversial play determining the outcome of the game would have been reversed if the system had been in official use.
He was also involved in a noise abatement system to allow a quarterback to transmit the snap count via a microphone built into his face mask and radio receiving modules in wide receivers’ helmets. This eventually led to the idea for the coach-to-quarterback communications system.
While managing the GDC program, Gerber continued as VP of production of NFL Films until retiring in 1999. He continued to work for the league as manager of the coordination program until 2013.
After some research by the GDC group, the offending operation turned out to be a very large television display creating “unintentional radiation.” The AT&T antennas had been placed adjacent to this display. Initial efforts to get the TV company to modify its display were unsuccessful until they were advised that the GDCs were authorized to have power for the entire display shut down if they did not rectify the problem. The company modified the display and reduced radiation to an acceptable level for the AT&T operation.
As the GDC program evolved, managing a clean environment continued to be a challenge. Some issues were as simple as interference from network parabolic dishes with transmitters left on piled on top of one another on the sideline. This was easy to track down and correct.
Even today, local GDCs may receive calls to coordinate on game day rather than at least 24 hours before. Usually, and depending on circumstances, they can be accommodated, but they’ll get a stern warning to coordinate within the local game 24-hour requirement. This is important; the GDC needs to clear everything being used in his/her database, and last-minute requests are jarring at best.
For the most part, however, through two decades of frequency coordination, RF users have become strong allies of the program, following Jay Gerber’s mandate “to help everyone do their job.”
An unsung hero, John Murphy of NFL Films, continues as the software writer and IT manager for the coordination program. After Gerber’s 2013 retirement from the NFL, the program continues its success under the leadership of Ralph Beaver as the GDC program manager with Karl Voss as the primary frequency coordinator.
Jay Gerber says the program is fortunate that the National Football League has supported the program’s efforts and recognizes its importance, and added, “Much of the success of the program belongs to the many Game Day Frequency Coordinators who devote their engineering talent and time to making RF operations for the NFL functional.”
Judith Zissman writes and consults on technology product development.