What does the world of sports broadcasting offer the budding sound engineer?
As a global industry, professional sports is worth as much as $620 billion, according to a 2011 AT Kearney study of sports teams, leagues and federations. This staggering amount of money — its current rate of growth will take it closer to $1 trillion in less than 10 years, by some estimates, growing significantly faster than many countries’ GDP rates — includes everything from stadiums and league payrolls to broadcast rights of games. And they’re all using more sound than ever.
While the budgets for television audio are still paltry compared to the funds invested in video technology, it’s been sound that’s become a huge moneymaker for sports. While that manifests itself in myriad ways, including aggregations on disc and online of sports themes and other music, sports sound’s single biggest accomplishment to date has been to make 5.1 surround audio ubiquitous and to bring it into the home — a feat that eluded many of the music industry’s attempts. Major-league shows on major broadcast and cable networks have been routinely broadcasting matches in discrete 5.1 for several years now. Music commissioned for these shows now usually requires either a surround mix or stems to be delivered. And even as more legacy content gets integrated into contemporary sports broadcasts, the audio for that content, which is usually in stereo or mono, is getting upmixed (automatically, by algorithm, for better or for worse) to match the rest of the show’s expanded soundfield. In fact, sports on television is being credited with the growth of 5.1 home theater systems even more than home cinema is.
To that point, the home viewing experience for sports has actually become a threat to ticket sales to live sporting events. The NFL (American sports’ biggest single moneymaker) has seen attendance in its teams’ stadiums steadily drop since 2007 — about the same time that HDTV signals were proliferating, 5.1 broadcast audio was gaining traction (matrixed as it was at the time), and the cost of large flat-screen television sets was dropping precipitously. Quelle coincidence! The home-viewing experience had become so much better and cheaper than actually going to a game, and discrete 5.1 sound, pioneered by ESPN in 2010, played a huge part of that, putting people virtually in the stands.
Interestingly, every broadcast sports audio mixer I’ve met — which is quite a few since it’s a regular beat for me — started in music, and many of them come back from a game in another city and spend a few days at home recording local bands in their own studios. That latent musicality manifests itself in a number of ways on sports programmes, not least of which is a multitude of ’sounds of the game’ shows. One such is Crank It Up, a fixture on Fox Sports’s coverage of NASCAR races in which Fred Aldous, the main audio mixer (referred to as an A1 in broadcast parlance), gets a three-to-four-minute ‘drum solo,’ as I like to call it. It’s basically a pastiche of track sounds, with no announcers getting in the way, and for which you’d better have at least a 12-inch subwoofer in the house if you really want to know what a Dodge 358 big-block motor sounds like with the throttle wide open!
Sports broadcasters have been regular clients for dozens of recording studios over the decades, especially in New York and Los Angeles, and even with many sound designers having their own facilities in recent years, the voracious need for content as the number of hours of broadcast sports proliferates inevitably spills into commercial facilities. The work goes there even though many of the networks themselves have their own music recording facilities, like the SSL-equipped facility that World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) maintains in Stamford, Connecticut (from where they have also run a record label since 1985).
Even recording-studio designers have found fertile fields in sports. John Storyk, for instance, designed the studio facilities and acoustics for ESPN (also in Connecticut), and Russ Berger has been helping make sports trucks’ mixing environments a bit more monitoring friendly. In an interview I did with him a couple of years ago, Berger’s experience and Texas folksiness came through in his assessment of what makes listening in those cramped spaces, where low frequencies are almost alien creatures, so difficult: “When you get down to 600 to 700 Hz, you’re mostly guessing, and, below 300Hz, it’s a total crapshoot.”
The number of television channels dedicated to sports has mushroomed in recent years, driven by the proliferation of new national and regional sports networks — and all are using audio to gain market share. If you really want to see how promising sports audio can be for those who pursue it, look no further than the trade schools. Full Sail, which saw the number of students enrolled in its broadcast courses increase 20 percent last year, continues a three-year-long relationship with ESPN, which recently moved its ‘Full Sail University Sports Lab Powered by ESPN’ facility to larger quarters on the school’s central Florida campus, where students collaborate on promo spots and other content for networks like ESPN, ABC and the Golf Channel. The school has also had an apprenticeship program in place with OB truck provider NEP for two years.
One of the most interesting recent phenomena in sports has been that what the pro leagues are doing — putting up line arrays in football stadiums, microphones on players and officials, and so on — is increasingly being viewed as aspirational by high-school and children’s leagues. In places like Texas it is not considered eyebrow-raising for a high school to build a $5 million football stadium, along with infrastructure to broadcast and stream the games. Suddenly, 16-year-old Texans have two kinds of shotguns to mess with: Winchesters and Sennheisers.