21CF Chats: Michael Davies, SVP of Field Operations for FOX Sports, Talks About Technology, Humans and the U.S. Open

Note: The following Q&A appears on the 21st Century Fox Blog.

At the 116th U.S. Open Championship, FOX Sports is using the latest technology just about everywhere you can imagine — from the tee to the green, from underground to the skies. While the 202 microphones, 33 miles of fiber optics, aerial drone footage and other tech are certainly striking, every piece of technology used in the U.S. Open has been carefully considered, vetted and selected to ensure that it enhances the viewer experience.

I spoke with Michael Davies, senior vice president of field operations for FOX Sports, to learn more about the thoughtful decisions that go into the many tech innovations used at the U.S. Open. During our conversation, Michael talked about FOX Sports Lab, the litmus test he uses when he considers the use of a new technology, why humans are still the most important element of these big sports productions and more.

Before we get into the U.S. Open and all the technological innovations that will be used there, can you talk about your personal interest in technology and how it drives and informs what you do at FOX Sports?

I’m in operations, so my job is to work with my teams to produce things that are outside the four walls of the studio, and I enjoy that. But I think being able to push the envelope with different technical items has always been a passion of mine. I think working with different companies and trying to assemble and combine technologies to do something that looks or feels cool — that’s something that interests me personally in a big way. It’s definitely part of my job, but a lot of it is passion as well. And it’s the same for Zac Fields (senior vice president of graphic technology and integration), and that’s why we make a good team.

How did we get to drones, virtual reality and other cool tech being integrated into big FOX Sports events like the U.S. Open?

We have something we came up with last year called the FOX Sports Lab, which consists of myself and Zac. It acknowledges that FOX Sports has been a leader in using technology across all sports since its inception. I suppose this began way back with the glowing puck and has grown to include some of the more recent endeavors like the "gopher cam," the rangefinder for golf and even virtual reality. When we get to the U.S. Open and golf, where technology was sort of put in the forefront of the effort for FOX and how we were going to “FOX-ify” this production, we looked to assemble a group of technical projects that would transform the face of golf, at least on television.

How are these tech integrations selected? How much of it is vendors pitching ideas to you, and how much is it your team pursuing these ideas?

It’s a good question. I think it’s a combination of things. The tech innovations that are the most fun are the ones you come up with as sort of a cocktail napkin sketch of what you want to do, and you try to chase after the technology to solve it. As you said, there are other technologies that are, let’s say, pitched to us from outside companies, and there are other things that we might see on other networks that we might want to either use or enhance. We also work with our overseas partners, like Sky. We talk frequently to these international properties so that we make sure we’re all sort of running in the same direction and sharing cool stuff under the big 21CF banner. In golf specifically, it was a mixture of these things.

Can you give us an example?

Sure: The rangefinder concept is basically where a next-gen rangefinder as a golfer would see it, where you not only see the ball trace, which I think everybody does, but also add yardages into different features of the course and drop those in augmented reality. That was something we drew up on a PowerPoint presentation and talked about, then went out to find the combination of vendors that would bring it to life.

What are some other notable technologies we’ll see at the Open?

In terms of the things that were selected for the U.S. Open, a lot of them are things we did last year. We’re not bringing only new stuff, but some of the things you’ll see this year are the graduates of what we did last year and hopefully improvements on what we thought was cool. The shaded green, for example, will allow you to see the contours of the green. We’ve added some topographical lines to it. We’ve been trying to use some of the newest camera technology. We’ve got smaller bunker cams that we’ll use this time.

And what about the drones, which are getting a lot of attention?

The drones are back, though not live this time because the course is so quiet and doesn’t lend itself to live drones creating noise. In Chambers Bay we had the background noise of water right off of the course, and here we don’t have that.

How do you make sure that all of this technology enhances the viewer experience and doesn’t take away from the actual tournament?

That’s the basic theme of everything we try to do in the Lab. You don’t want to do technology for technology’s sake. You shouldn’t be bringing out something because you can flaunt or show off what you can do. It’s more about: Can you enhance the story? Can you show the viewer something they haven’t seen before? Can you give the talent a better way to tell the story — can you give them additional tools to do that? So yeah, it is something that you need to be mindful of at every turn.

How do you know where the line is?

Whether it’s golf or any other sport, the litmus test is: Does this technology make sense, or are we doing something that’s really just for show? We definitely don’t want the latter. But what we want to do is make a visual impact and provide what David Hill called a "unique visual difference" – a UVD. But you don’t want to do that at the expense of the core of what you want to do, particularly when you’re doing golf, where you’ve got a very educated audience in terms of people who’ve watched golf for years and generations of people watching golf together. You don’t want to hit them over the head with crazy stuff that’s going to get in the way of the game or somehow impact the integrity of the game.

How does the technology integrated throughout the U.S. Open experience change your job and your team’s job?

Zac is very much into the graphical portions of how we get on air, and I’m in operations. So in some ways, this is a bit of a sidebar for us in terms of being able to cobble together these technologies. Both of us still have our core responsibilities of getting things on the air. In addition to all the technology, I’m lucky to have an extremely talented team who has been working on golf — that’s their expertise.

So tech takes a backseat to the humans making the whole thing work?

While the technological items are cool and tend to get more attention, there are literally hundreds of people here working to get this thing on the air. Technology definitely changes our jobs, but getting on the air is what we’re really concerned with. Luckily, there are a lot of great people around. Brad Cheney, the director of technical operations, is the mastermind of this whole operation in terms of not only the technology but in getting the thing on the air and organizing hundreds of people. And Sarita Meinking, production manager, is essential to making it all work as well. We’re lucky to have all those people. While the technology is the head-turner, it ends up being a pretty small part of what this whole thing is all about.

Great team, cool technology – now if only the weather would cooperate.

It really is a phenomenal team that’s put in a ton of hours to make this thing work.