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SBE Hands Off NFL Coordination

The change will benefit the profession and still allow SBE to be affiliated with the league, critics say.

Critics of the Society of Broadcast Engineers’ NFL Game Day Coordination Program appear satisfied with changes that will do away with its voluntary nature.

After the coming season, the National Football League will hire its game day coordinators, following a decade in which those services were provided through the auspices of the SBE.

The change will benefit the profession and still allow SBE to be affiliated with the league, critics say.

The SBE announced the changes in April. Its leaders said the decision was not a response to recent criticism about the volunteer aspects of the program.

Frequency coordination ‘critical’

Since 1999, the society has provided a volunteer frequency coordinator for every NFL venue to handle RF coordination at each respective stadium. It receives an unpublished amount of money for that service.

The volunteers are issued an equipment kit provided by the NFL, which typically includes an Anritsu 2721B spectrum analyzer, Icom R10 scanner receiver, M1 Optoelectronics handheld frequency counter, direction-finding antenna with 100 dB attenuator, two Motorola handheld radios, NFL coordination database and an IBM laptop with appropriate licensed software.

The program was established as an extension of SBE’s overall volunteer frequency coordination efforts, said Barry Thomas, the society’s president.

“For 30 years, SBE frequency coordinators have provided free coordination services to benefit their local broadcast community,” he said.

“The NFL at the time had become aware of our nationwide network of volunteer frequency coordinators. SBE’s motivation was to help local broadcasters in NFL markets protect their frequencies during game days.”

The proliferation of wireless devices at an NFL game creates an RF environment that can be overwhelming, says SBE, with systems from the quarterback’s in-helmet receiver and sideline reporters’ interruptible foldback to the food service director’s walkie-talkie creating potential interference. Frequency coordination is viewed as critical to the overall presentation of an NFL game.

The NFL does pay the society a fee for its services, said Jay Gerber, founder and manager of the GDC program and manager of the NFL Frequency Organization Group.

“It amounts to a considerable amount of money,” Gerber said. He declined to say how much the NFL annually budgets to run the GDC program.

The league reimburses game day operators for out-of-pocket expenses, and since 2002, has offered a small gratuity to coordinators as a thank you for their efforts. SBE is charged with distributing the funds. The gratuity has increased several times through the years, Thomas said.

The arrangement has been beneficial to SBE because it “illustrated the value of frequency coordination and cooperative spectrum management,” according to the society press release announcing planned changes.

According to program supporters, SBE and the NFL work jointly to promote an interference-free and harmonious environment for wireless operations, including broadcast radio and television. SBE has provided the NFL access to a pool of broadcast engineers capable of handling frequency coordination, Thomas said.

The volunteer nature of the program caused concern for some engineers since its inception nine seasons ago.

In April, SBE announced that after this season, the NFL will administer the Game Day Coordination Program, using coordinators hired by the league. SBE said the changes are a “natural progression” of the program and were not initiated by either side.

Mario Hieb, P.E., a consulting engineer and critic of the previous SBE/NFL agreement, said he was satisfied with the new arrangement though surprised at the timing of the announcement, just prior to the spring NAB Show.

“I have been corresponding with previous SBE leaders for several years on this issue and never seemed to make an impact,” he said. Hieb, an SBE member, also is an occasional contributor to Radio World.

Hieb, whose consulting work includes frequency coordination, wrote in an unpaid personal commentary in the newspaper in January that SBE was subsidizing the NFL by providing game day frequency coordinators to the league at no charge.

“Sure they get a parking space, gas money and maybe a free hot dog, but they are not paid a professional rate; and this is with the blessing of our professional organization, the SBE,” he argued in the commentary.

Workload increase

Another observer who provides frequency coordination services said the new agreement will allow broadcast engineers to pursue paying opportunities and advance the profession of RF coordination.

The timing of SBE’s announcement led to speculation that the organization was reacting to the criticism; but Thomas said the announcement was not the result of recent pressure from critics like Hieb.

“The basis for this new agreement has been under discussion for some time, pre-dating Mario’s commentary,” Thomas said. “This evaluation has taken place over months if not years.”

Among the reasons he cited for the change is the workload increase for game day frequency coordinators.

The load “has increased to such a level that the volunteer program that the SBE operates may not be the most appropriate model for the growing RF coordination requirement at NFL games,” Thomas said.

As the transition progresses, SBE will concentrate its efforts in developing training and education programs in RF event coordination, including those skills used as an NFL game day coordinator, Thomas said.

“Those who complete these programs will be made available for referral to the NFL,” Thomas said.

SBE has stated that it wants to help members facilitate their own businesses in RF event coordination or increase their “employee value” through the understanding of principles of sharing of BAS spectrum.

That is exactly the point Hieb sought to make in his January commentary, Hieb said.

“The SBE policy of voluntary coordination takes work away from people who do it for a living,” he wrote.

Yet to be seen is how much the NFL will be willing to spend on hiring game day frequency coordinators or if it will hire SBE members for such work.

“The NFL has no obligation to pay a professional rate to the GDC professionals. There are some who will probably do it for nothing, as they have in the past; perhaps that is their business, but it does nothing to help the profession,” Hieb said.

Thomas said the SBE will “informally refer qualified engineers,” but that the “NFL will ultimately be responsible” for securing coordinators.

“We expect the NFL will continue to look to SBE members for GDC services,” Thomas said.

Gerber of the NFL Frequency Organization Group said, “SBE has been a wonderful partner, and typically their members make excellent GDC candidates. It is our intention to continue to have that sort of relationship with the SBE. However, we have never confined our GDC requirements to only SBE members.” He said a number of current GDCs and assistants are not SBE members.

For those who have worked as volunteer coordinators, the experience likely will make them good candidates to continue in those roles after this season, said a broadcast engineer who has worked as a game day coordinator.

Advance spectrum management for coordinators begins the week prior to a home game in each respective NFL city. According to one coordinator who asked not to be identified, his week begins by acknowledging requests for frequencies.

For a Sunday NFL game, work begins on the prior Thursday with two to four hours to assemble the game’s matrix of operating pre-/post-game channels, while Friday and Saturday are spent taking last-minute frequency requests and adding those to the database, he said.

“Game day typically begins three hours prior to kickoff with a cursory check of team communication needs, network TV tech managers as well as home and away radio rights holders. At kickoff, we typically position ourselves at the sideline communication carts.”

As the game continues, coordinators typically will take their seats in the press box to monitor various mission-critical channels for impairments, he said. Game wrap-up duties include revisiting collaboration partners to gather confirmation of problem-free operation.

Thomas said SBE’s decision generated lots of discussion among society members at April’s NAB Show.

“The general response was positive. The change allows SBE to serve, in a very specific way, an educational functional [purpose] regarding NFL event coordination,” Thomas said.