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Evan Winiker

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Great Ball of Fire: An Anatomy of the Worst Sports Broadcasting Innovation of Our Time, the Glow Puck

Posted: 07/20/2012 3:59 pm

September 1994. Nearly nine months in and already it felt as if the black cat of a year had scratched its way into the history books. In January, Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed while entering an arena in Detroit, in June OJ Simpson was involved in a low-speed car chase, and in July Columbian footballer Andres Escobar was shot dead because of a goal he scored in the World Cup.

While these major news stories rocked the sports world to its Cosselian core, an idea was brewing in the heart of the death star (A.K.A. Fox Sports/News Corps), one that would change the way we watched sports forever... Well, it felt like that. In reality, it was only for three seasons, but that was three seasons too long.

I'm referring to the glow puck (cue ominous music), that radiant orb that blasted its way into the hearts and minds of Canadians and Americans alike in the mid 90's. Like Instant Replay and Slow Mo before it, the glow puck was to be the next big invention in televised sports, Fox even went so far as to call it "The greatest innovation in broadcast sports history", a claim we all know to be true... er.

It all began in late 1994. Fox Sports, the newly minted athletic arm of Rupert Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting Company, was eager to make a name for itself, and in an unprecedented deal, obtained broadcasting rights to the NHL for the sum of $155 million dollars. Itching to expand viewership and capitalize on the icy investment, FOX surveyed their untapped audience, basically all of America, and found that one of the most common complaints was that people were unable to follow the puck (Writer's note No. 1: Keep in mind, this is a black puck on a white surface).

Armed with this new information, David Hill, The Darth Vader of our story (President of Fox Sports) and Stan Honey, the Grand Moff Tarkin (Executive VP of Technology at News Corp) began discussing the idea of a puck tracking system, one that would assist American viewers in enjoying the Canadian past time. In October, they took this plan all the way to the Emperor, Rupert Murdoch, who gave them the go ahead for this sith like project.

Until this point, the late 20th century had given us a number of innovations in the sports broadcasting world: Instant replay, on-screen graphics, slow motion, Bob Costas... Truly a glut of novelties. Though the major networks had implemented these minor game changers, a task the size and scope of the glow puck would be too risky for an aging dinosaur like NBC or CBS. Fox, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. They were young, brash, and had a lot of money to spend, so while CBS and NBC were toying with ways to simply upgrade the viewing experience (Mic'ing players, working on skycam technology), FOX was looking with a Doc Brown like outlook towards the future. They weren't going to ameliorate the experience, they were going to redefine it. To do this, they mined a resource no one else had even dreamed of... Lasers.

In February of '95, Stan Honey, former CEO of ETAK (The company that developed the first automobile navigation system), began to put the team together, assembling a ragtag group of developers with a common goal: Design, build and implement the system by the following years All star game (The first under Fox's new contract), a task that would prove highly formidable.

The team, led by project manager Rick Cavallaro, had virtually no experience in sports broadcasting or production, they were tech guys who preferred Duck Hunt to the Mighty Ducks. Cavallaro looks back, "Here we were, a bunch of guys that weren't sports fans, hadn't ever been to a hockey game, and didn't know the first thing about television," clearly this project was destined for success.

They set up shop at the San Jose Arena (otherwise known as The Shark Tank; see The NHL's only rain out), and got to work on the first step. The initial idea was to use radar tracking technology, a chirping system that would give the pucks range from four radars situated in the arena, but they soon realized the stadiums corner reflectors and I-beams would create a cacophony of pings, rendering the puck untrackable. There were other fears as well: The temperature of the ice, the weight of the puck, outside interference, still, this was their best bet, and in March of '95, the team took to the ice.

Rick Cavallaro remembers the night well, "The initial test of the RF system was frankly scary... We certainly couldn't cover all those I-beams with RF absorbent material. We simply couldn't go to every hockey arena and do that. And we certainly were not going to convince them not to play on ice." (Writers note No. 2: Not sure if he's joking here)

After hitting a wall, Cavallaro went back to Honey with the dour news, "I was at a point where I thought, "Well, I guess we're shot. This is our technology and it doesn't look so good." The dark lord fired back at him, "You encounter problems and you work through them," very similar to the confab between Darth Vader and the Emperor at the beginning of Return of the Jedi.

Fearing an intergalactic brawl, the team went back to the drawing board, and in the Spring of '95, just a few months shy of their due date, came up with an interesting idea: Lasers. A lot of them.

Infrared tracking is a method for detecting and following objects that give off IR radiation. It had been used in weather forecasting, military surveillance and many low-budget sci-fi flicks, but until this point, had never been used on a hockey puck.

The idea was to build a puck with little infra-red LED's in it. These LED's would emit pulses that were received by detectors positioned in the arena, similar to the way a TV remote sends signals to the cable box.

With two weeks to go, the team tested the system for the first time. To put it best, the test failed. There were noise issues, sync problems and IR interference that rendered the puck virtually untrackable, Cavallaro does however recall a successful tracking of the zamboni (Writers Note No. 3: This is not a joke).

By this point, Fox's massive ad campaign had begun. Commercials with scientists in lab coats, billboards with fiery pucks and the infamous screen banner, "January 20th, tune in to Fox Sports for the greatest innovation in broadcast sports history." The pressure was on.

Mired with an unproven device, Cavallero and the team went on to Boston where they would test their highly-touted apparatus on the sports biggest stage, the All Star game. Surprisingly, it worked.

The little blue dot they'd been not so quietly working on for two years, sizzled its way from board to board in Sega like fashion. Millions of mouths across Canada simultaneously dropped, their beloved sport had now been fully Americanized.

Though the test was a success, criticism was harsh. Fans said it turned the broadcast into a glamorized video game, sports casters ridiculed the insect like disturbance, and players complained that the puck bounced more because it wasn't frozen the same way. The only people who didn't seem to mind were the execs at Fox. They had a bona-fide hit on their hands.

Not only was the event the highest rated hockey game of all time, the glow puck was the most talked about novelty since Beanie Babies. Whether it was the spruce goose like marketing campaign or America's newfound love for a play station like reality, the glow puck was here to stay... Or so it would seem.

For the next three seasons, the orb would soar from arena to arena, sometimes working, sometimes not, always delivering a barrage of grievances in its wake. In 1997, the Jedi's struck back. ESPN outbid Fox sports for the broadcast rights to the NHL, thus ending the orb's illustrious broadcast career.

In the 15 years since its last televised appearance, much has transpired: Jaromir Jagr cut his mullet, Nashville finally got that hockey team they never wanted, and a bevy of Star Wars prequels tainted the consummate trilogy. Though much has been made of these frozen infamies, few have asked about the infamous gleaming puck.

Some say it's frozen in a carbonite casing in Jabba the Hut's palace, others say it's been relegated to Bristol, CT, spending it's days as a Sports Center punch line.

The glut of question marks that shroud the glow puck's existence are bountiful, though one thing is certain, it will go down as the worst broadcasting innovation of our time.

 
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