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Fox Sports Puts Technology in the End Zone
By Jacqueline Kramer
screen shot The Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons will face off in Super Bowl™ XXXIII on Jan. 31, thus bringing yet another gut wrenching season of NFL action to a spectacular close. The Super Bowl also marks the end of a successful rookie season for a new Fox Broadcasting feature for instantly updating fans on all games in progress while they watch a televised game.

Fox landed the NFL broadcasting rights in 1994, and immediately began investigating new and innovative ways to keep viewers apprised of the latest scores from across the nation. Initially, Fox relied on the "Fox Box," a black box permanently mounted in every professional stadium in the U.S., to collect information. The box, which is still in use, reads information directly off of the scoreboard and then transmits it via modem. This system is used to display the basic game information (i.e., the score and game clock) during the game broadcast.

The Fox Box system worked adequately but it didn't meet Fox's long-term goals. The system passed its data to a DOS-based system over a serial network. While the DOS-based system met Fox's immediate needs, it didn't provide a platform for growth such as the ability to be used with other sports franchises.

Automatic for the people
In April 1998, Fox turned to Certified Microsoft Solution Provider Partner M1 Software for help. Fox asked for a system that would automatically collect basic game data, including the quarter (or period, in hockey) and current score, from multiple live games and feed them to a Microsoft® Windows NT®-based server for display during local games. The system had to be compatible with the Fox Boxes already installed in the stadiums, and it had to be ready in time for the 1998-99 season. The catch: When the project was started, kick-off was a scant four months away.

click for larger view M1's development team knew that tackling the tight deadline would be tough, but not impossible. With no time to waste, the team had to select its primary development environment carefully. After brief debate, the team decided that Visual Basic® was the tool for the job.

"We selected Visual Basic because we felt it was very easy to use and develop within the limited time we had to create (the Fox system)," said Niels Hansen, M1's Senior Architect of Systems Development. "The Windows® Sockets (winsock) controls that came with Visual Basic made it very easy to do. The Visual Basic native code compiler also influenced our decision."

Using the Visual Basic development system, M1 was able to deliver the application, dubbed the Central Scoring System, on budget and on schedule. Fox used the system throughout the regular season and on multiple game days during the playoffs. The system is designed to kick in automatically throughout the game.

Squeeze play
Regina Gifford, Executive Director of Systems for Fox Broadcasting, explained how the system works. "The viewers will be watching an individual football game from their area (full-screen)," she explains. "Then, about twice a quarter, there's a digital video 'squeeze-back' of the screen into an L shape. Next, the scores from other games played that same day, including games that are in play at the same time, are displayed. You get the score, the ticking clock, and the little game note at the bottom (of the L) while the local game is squeezed back.

"During the studio segments, the system is used to show a full-page scoreboard, with James Brown or Terry Bradshaw talking about what happened (during the games)," she added.

Gifford has been extremely pleased with the Central Scoring System's rookie year, she said. The system handled all tasks with aplomb. It also provides a solid platform for future development, Gifford said, an important factor, as the Central Scoring System is just the beginning.

"We've got Windows NT-based machines in the (Fox Broadcast) trucks that are generating statistical information, like how many yards a player ran. All that comes back to a statistical server at Fox," Gifford explained. "By building both of these products in a Windows NT environment, I'm hopeful that in the future, we can merge the data from these two sources together for each game. That would give Fox the most complete game day system available. So far, that hasn't happened - they're still two different entities. But it gives us flexibility for the future. That's something that we'll work on at the end of the season."

Fox's Central Scoring System scored a touchdown with football fans and Fox executives alike this year by taking sports score reporting to the next level. Therefore, there is little doubt that the system will hit a home run and score with sports fans throughout the year once it is introduced to Fox's other sports franchises, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.

No matter what the game, Microsoft's Visual Basic technology will be there to help the home team ride to victory.

Jacqueline Kramer is a Seattle-based freelance writer and lifelong Dallas Cowboy fan.

© 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Microsoft, Visual Basic, Windows and Windows NT are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries. © 1999, NFL Enterprises, L.P. Super Bowl and NFL are registered trademarks of the National Football League.

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