If you attend a Super Bowl party on Sunday, you’ll probably hear at least one casual football viewer ask, “How do they get that yellow first-down line on the field?” While “magic” is a fine answer in its own right, the real explanation is a bit more technologically intense. Let’s have a look at the background and mechanics behind every football fan’s shining beacon, the yellow first-down line.
Like the first-down line, football fans? You owe a tip of your cap to an unlikely source: hockey. According to Allen St. John’s 2009 book The Billion Dollar Game, the first-down line actually emerged from the ashes of one of sports broadcasting’s bigger debacles: the FoxTrax system for hockey, which was designed by a company called Sportvision. FoxTrax – which hockey fans no doubt remember as the much-maligned “technopuck” that debuted in 1996 – employed a system of cameras and sensors around a hockey rink to place a little blue halo around the puck.
FoxTrax wasn’t a great fit for NHL broadcasts. Hockey purists hated the intrusion into their game, and casual fans didn’t flock to hockey just because the puck was suddenly easier to follow. However, the system inspired producers to think of new ways to insert computerized images into live sports broadcasts. The idea of using a line to mark the first down in football was a natural extension, and Sportvision debuted its 1st and 10 system during ESPN’s broadcast of a Bengals-Ravens tilt on September 27, 1998. A couple of months later, rival company Princeton Video Image unveiled its Yellow Down Line system during a Steelers-Lions broadcast on CBS. (Sportvision is still kicking, and ESPN just acquired all of PVI’s intellectual property in December 2010.)
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