America's Cup: Up close enough to hear a sailor swear

By Dana Johannsen

TV viewers have never had it so good when it comes to understanding sailing. Photo / Liveline Graphics
TV viewers have never had it so good when it comes to understanding sailing. Photo / Liveline Graphics

In an event that has delivered a succession of flops, there is one aspect of the 34th America's Cup that has everyone raving - the broadcast coverage.

As part of Larry Ellison's grand plans to overhaul the event and create a product that, to use Russell Coutts' oft-quoted analogy, will appeal to the Facebook generation rather than the Flintstones generation, organisers were intent on making the America's Cup a television-friendly event with appeal beyond diehard sailors.

Some traditionalists were derisive. They did not want to see the event morph into some crass made-for-TV spectacular. But when those first pictures of Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa flying around the San Francisco Bay course were beamed into homes, few could argue the television coverage of the racing did add to the event.

Along with the picturesque aerial shots of San Francisco Bay, a sophisticated network of cameras, sensors and computers took the viewer inside the sport for the first time.

The on-air product is the culmination of a massive broadcast technology project undertaken by some of the sharpest brains in the business. The single biggest investment in the America's Cup, which is estimated to have cost event management well in excess of $100 million, was in broadcasting. They established their own production unit - ACTV - which is supplying television networks with its broadcast package.

ACTV executive producer Denis Harvey, the former head of production and sport at TVNZ, said past coverage of America's Cups had been little more than watching white dots out in the middle of the ocean, or computerised graphics tracking their way around the course - so his team started with the mantra that they wanted to allow the viewer to see the sport inside out.

To capture the action each boat has seven cameras installed, while 14 on-board microphones pick up the chatter among the crew. Three helicopters give an aerial view, while on the water two cameras follow the action on chase-boats.

"There's no other sport that allows you to get that close," said Harvey.

"Sometimes the sailors don't like that very much, but it's given the audience a whole new viewing experience."

Regatta director Iain Murray was forced to issue a memorandum after one of the world series events last year, when it was discovered the sailors were swearing like, well, sailors. Broadcast contracts with some of the major networks were at risk so Murray was forced to intervene on behalf of the organisers.

But the biggest challenge was finding a way to make a that is sport notoriously difficult to understand more accessible.

Sailing is a game powered by invisible forces - windspeed, wind direction, puffs of breeze and currents - and decisions are made based on those invisible forces. Trying to illustrate that and make it easily understandable has been a problem for decades. It took a man with a unique cross-over of talents to crack that code.

Stan Honey, the co-founder of Sportvision - the company that led the development of the yellow first-down line widely used in the broadcasting of American football, the ESPN "K-Zone" baseball pitch-tracking and highlighting system, and the Race/FX tracking and highlighting system used in Nascar - also happens to be a world-class sailor.

Honey navigated ABN AMRO to victory in the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race and was named Yachtsman of the Year in 2010, after serving as navigator on board Groupama 3 when it set the Jules Verne record for fastest circumnavigation of the world.

Honey developed a system to track the America's Cup catamarans to within 2cm, 10 times a second, and superimpose graphics elements such as ahead-behind lines on the live helicopter footage of the race. Previously America's Cup broadcasts only featured graphics visible in an animated view of the race.

Once they started building the system for the television product, race management heard about the sensors that could track the boats so accurately and Honey and his team were asked to integrate their technology into the umpiring and race management systems.

"It ended up being twice as big as we originally expected," Honey said, "but we think we've done something pretty special here."

- NZ Herald

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