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ESPN Spins Axis Toward Primetime

On the Continent, the lasting impression of Euro 2008 is of Spain ending a 44-year drought in major soccer tournaments and emerging as one of the favorites for World Cup 2010.

In the States, what sports fans may remember most is the tourney marked the first use of what may become another technological staple of sports telecasts: ESPN Axis.

Now the question is, will the same technology that brought viewers championship futbol in the summer be used to cover football in the fall?

From the UEFA championships, “ESPN Axis” created “virtual” replays by converting the world feed video from IBC. Images fed from the live-action game cameras were calibrated and stitched together at ESPN headquarters here, to create virtual freeze-frames from multiple angles. These angles can tilt upwards by 90 degrees — from pitch level to direct overhead shots — creating three-dimensional, bird’s-eye views of key plays from multiple vantage points.

Within the three-dimensional frame, ESPN analysts telestrated player locations and movements to depict and explain how plays developed and what actions led to scores, offsides and other key moments during matches.

ESPN soccer analyst Julie Foudy estimated she used Axis between 15 and 20 times during the tournament.

“The feedback I’ve received from viewers is that it has brought them a new awareness of the game,” Foudy said. “I’ve always been a big fan of what John Madden did with a telestrator. We want to do that with other sports.”

Thus, the questions are whether the graphic enhancement, developed by Swiss company LiberoVision, can be adapted to other sports and when might viewers see it again on ESPN’s air.

“We’re very happy with what [ESPN Axis] has provided us,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president of production, who mentioned that with Skycam, HD and other isolated cameras, the programmer has been able to bring viewers closer to the action. This technology, though, offers the “most holistic view” yet, he said.

While the technology was “targeted for this tournament,” Williamson said “your creative mind starts to wonder” about the “opportunities to migrate it from sport to sport.” In a discussion with a reporter, Williamson talked about Axis’s potential to showcase pass patterns developing in American football.

Bob Toms, ESPN vice president of production enhancement and ITV, provided more specific examples.

“You set a [visual] target of the quarterback through the pocket, and the target area to which he’s trying to reach the wide receiver,” he said. “You could see all the defenders and blockers around the QB in the pocket and the defensive backs and the wide receiver. You could also get a real sense for the DBs closing speed to the ball or ball carrier.”

Toms also thinks it could work with basketball and baseball. For instance on tag-up plays, an overhead could show how far the base runner was down the line; then how he retreated to the bag; where the outfielder caught the ball; the throw; and movement of all the infielders.

Conversely, some situations might not necessarily be suitable for the systems. Toms said there are identification issues relative to when bodies collide, meaning it may be more difficult to use Axis, say, to illustrate intricacies in the pit, football’s offensive and defensive line play.

Given soccer’s continuous run of play, Axis was only used during halftime and pre- and post-game segments. Perhaps those are the only places it could have been deployed during the event, as it took anywhere from seven to 20 minutes to produce the enhanced replays.

Indeed, learning the technology came mainly on the fly. ESPN media operator Susie D’Amico, who worked on Axis throughout Euro 2008, said a LiberoVision rep came two weeks before the tourney and then again a couple of days before it actually kicked off. “We only had four days of full training,” she said.

“As our analysts get better with it, the process will improve,” Toms added. “The only hiccup has come in learning the system,” he said. “I think we can turn it around more quickly.”

Quickly enough to insert Axis in-game? “If you use it to illustrate a touchdown, the telecast goes to commercial for three minutes. There’s the kickoff, then another commercial pod,” he said. “The other team punts. Then, you come back with the replay as the scoring team takes possession again. It has to be time-relevant.”

So, when will Axis next appear? The ESPN executives kept that part of the game plan close to the vest.

Williamson said ESPN would get “feedback from fans, our talent and producers” before making any decisions to move forward.

“There’s a lot of development ahead, but we’re going to do what we can to get ready,” said Toms. “I’m confident, it will be ready for primetime.”