The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are very reluctant guinea pigs.
The Ticats will be part of TSN’s first-ever “live mic” experiment on Sunday with in-game audio from head coach Kent Austin and quarterback Zach Collaros included in the broadcast. Their Calgary counterparts, coach Dave Dickenson and quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, will also be wearing microphones.
But Austin and several players have expressed concern that audio gleaned from the broadcast could put them at a competitive disadvantage in subsequent games, negatively impact the way they communicate with one another on the field and potentially hurt their reputations.
“There are challenges with hurry-up and catching key phrases and words that you might hear in a huddle that’s also used in hurry up that’s now on a broadcast that can be recorded and catalogued,” Austin said.
TSN vice-president and executive producer of live events Paul Graham says the broadcast will feature a 10-second delay designed to give the broadcaster time to make audio edits on the fly.
“We have a protocol in position to deal with language that is offensive and certain situations that are deemed off-limits,” Graham said. “We’ve been provided with some key verbiage to keep and eye out for – or an ear open for, if you will.”
The live mics will be shut off when the quarterbacks are at the line of scrimmage and CFL vice president of football operations and player safety Kevin McDonald will be charged with identifying anything that could impact the competitive balance in the future.
“When it comes to football-specific decisions with respect to sensitivities that is going to be a league decision with respect to what gets in and what doesn’t,” Graham said.
Bu there’s concern that MacDonald, a former CIS quarterback who has never played or coached at the CFL level, will hear the game in the same way an opposing head coach or coordinator will. TSN will be looking to glean as much quality audio from their highly-touted experiment and 10 seconds isn’t a long time to make a decision.
“Everybody does things different in terms of how they communicate what they do schematically,” said Austin, who was to meet with TSN and league officials in Calgary on Saturday to discuss his concerns. “A one-size fits all isn’t going to work so there has to be some customization to it that I’m not sure has been fully thought out.”
Ticat players have also expressed concern that the way they communicate with teammates and their opponents – which can sometimes be colourful in both language and content – will make it onto the broadcast, even accidentally. One unfortunate comment uttered in the heat of the moment could impact public perception in the long term.
The timing is also an issue. Instead of launching the live mics in the pre-season – when the stakes are much lower – TSN is introducing them in Week 10 of the regular season, right before the Ticats face off with the East Division rival Toronto in a crucial home-and-home match up that begins on Labour Day.
“This will be an experiment and if it gets some really good traction all parties may see if we can do more games this year,” Graham said. “It’s an ongoing discussion but obviously how things go Sunday will play a lot into that.”
With declining ratings in each of the last two seasons, TSN has lobbied hard for expanded access and the initiative has the support of the league’s board of governors, including Ticat president Scott Mitchell. Austin, meanwhile, sees the value but doesn’t want it to hurt his team’s chances of winning games.
“As a league and as individual coaches we have to be really smart about protecting the integrity of the game, protecting what you’ve spent a lot of time building,” Austin said. “But also understanding that this is good for the league, good for providing some compelling sound and presenting a better product on TV.
“It certainly has a little bit of momentum and the train is out of the station.”