World first as PRO12 and Sky Sports roll out rugby Player Mic technology
The Guinness PRO12 has become the first elite professional rugby union tournament in the world to formally feature Player Mic as part of its Sky Sports live broadcast coverage this season. The tournament, held between Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh clubs, first trialled Player Mic on September 12 2015 when it was worn by Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey. The microphone was then worn by Francis Saili for Munster and Rhys Thomas for Dragons on December 27, followed by Ulster’s Louis Ludik on January 2 and Jonathan Spratt for Ospreys against Leinster on January 8.
With the introduction of Player Mic, PRO12 Rugby Managing Director Martin Anayi said, “We are delighted to be the first elite rugby union tournament into the market with Player Mic. This innovative coverage will bring viewers closer to the action by being given direct insight into how players communicate on the field. Broadcasters will be able to record the player communicating with fellow team mates, and using camera tracking, will be able to replay clips showing a rare aspect of a match from a players point of view.”
The innovation is part of an ongoing World Rugby trial, and Sky Sports’ Head of Rugby Union Gus Williamson told SVG Europe, “It’s a new technology for everyone. I have no doubt that we can improve how we use it. We are learning more about the kit each time we use it, and we’re also learning about what the most interesting elements of the game are in a player mic context.”
Regarding the technology employed, Sky UK Director of Operations Keith Lane said, “The microphone is a Quantum5X QT5100 player mic specially designed to be small and robust for in-game action. The system comes with a remote control unit which allows control over mic gain, frequency and power on/off.
“This means that the mic can be installed into a vest which is given to the club before on-pitch training. The unit can be remotely switched on when the selected player enters the field for warm up or play and turned off when leaving the pitch to ensure any team conversations in the dressing rooms will not be recorded,” said Lane.
“The microphone weighs just over 50 grams including battery so is almost unnoticeable for the player when worn. The manufacturer claims a four hour battery life for the microphone but tests so far have revealed more like two hours — therefore we have to be selective with powering up pre-match to be certain of full game coverage.
“In sound control we isolate the microphone and send to a dedicated EVS. This appears on audio tracks 5 and 6 of the EVS and only this machine has these tracks routed to the sound desk — meaning that the audio from the Player Mic cannot accidently be faded up from another source,” said Lane.
Rugby referees in the professional game have carried microphones for several years, and now even wear cameras on their shirts to show the game from their perspective. Player Mics are commonplace in T20 Cricket and American Football, the latter presenting similar challenges to rugby union as it’s an intense contact sport meaning the player pack has to be both very light and very robust.
Broadcasters also need to be very sensitive to what is transmitted from the pitch. Profanity is always a
possibility in a tough sport like rugby union, but the professional game has also become highly strategic and there could be a danger that Player Mic would unwittingly reveal offensive or defensive plays or patterns to opposition coaches during a game.
“Our mandate is very clear,” said Williamson. “We NEVER broadcast anything live to avoid profanity etc. What we do is clip up the best examples, and having checked they are suitable and won’t give away any sensitive tactical information, we run them during breaks in play, half time and full time. We then use our digital and social channels to showcase the clips to the widest possible audience.”
Williamson is pleased with how the PRO12 Player Mic trial has progressed to date. “I want us to entertain and educate, and by taking rugby fans right into the heart of the action, I believe we can do both in a fresh and innovative way. In terms of success, the fact that players trust us enough to wear the kit is for me a success,” he said.
Player Mic is the latest innovation introduced by Sky Sports into live television coverage. In 2003, Sky Sports was the first to use Rail Cam in International rugby union, a fast moving camera attached to a rail that runs up and down the pitch keeping up with play. In 2012, Sky Sports introduced Ref Cam, a camera strapped to the referee’s chest giving viewers the closest ever footage of the action.
In the 2013/14 season, Sky Sports introduced Sky Cart, taking the touchscreen technology used in the studio pitch side, involving players in the post-game analysis for the first time. And in 2015 Sky Sports became the first broadcaster to trial Hawkeye Smart Replay technology, which was subsequently used in The Rugby World Cup.