How football TV’s first down line made its debut

The first down line that football fans see on-screen hasn't always been there. Here's how the innovative technology made its debut.

Watching a football game in person is a much different experience than watching a game from the comfort of my couch. 

That may sound obvious, but consider: 

The couch is comfortable. The family room is cooled or heated as desired. Snacks and drinks are easily accessible, mere steps away, without having to wait in a line. The same is true for using the bathroom. 

But at a stadium, there’s the fun of tailgating with friends, the roar of the crowd, the sounds of the marching band, the chill in the fall air, the excitement and the feeling of being part of something. It is a truly unique experience. 

However, another benefit that a football stadium is missing, is the yellow first down line. 

Admittedly, I feel spoiled by this iconic, simple yellow line that marks the spot on the field a player needs to reach to get his team a first down. It’s electronically added to the broadcast of the game, but football fans are so used to it that one can have withdrawals when it’s not there (I know I do). 

What’s ironic is that it wasn’t always there. 

On September 27, 1998, Sportvision debuted its yellow first down marker on ESPN’s broadcast of the Ravens-Bengals game. 

Before that debut, however, the system was being tested on pre-season NFL games. Sportvision’s production truck was parked alongside ESPN’s truck and a separate feed of the game was generated to test the yellow line. As everyone expected, there were technological bugs. But there was also the challenge of timing the addition of the line with play-by-play calling and the broadcast feed. 

Camera jitter was also causing problems. Although Sportvision wanted to move forward so as not to miss opening weekend, ESPN officials elected to wait until everything worked correctly. 

Two weeks later, the system was tested again. There were no issues. 

Three days before the Ravens and Bengals took the field, ESPN held a press conference to announce the innovation. 

The telecast went smoothly. The reviews were outstanding. Other networks asked Sportvision about the technology but the company had an exclusivity agreement with ESPN for the regular season, the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Sportvision and ESPN won an Emmy for the innovation. But as it turned out, the competition for first down marker technology was as intense as the actual competition on the football field. 

Durham's SMT Technologies had been providing the scrolling leaderboard for NASCAR broadcasts on Fox in 1992. The company began using the technology in other sports programming and in 2003, started providing the first down marker technology for NBC Sport’s Notre Dame football broadcasts. One year later, SMT became the exclusive provider of the first down line for ABC's Monday Night Football. 

As you watch televised sporting events, from baseball, to football, to even the X-Games, it’s clear the innovation in real-time, virtual graphics continues. SMT says it continues to test new ideas, with the goal of enhancing the viewing experience while not taking away from the action on the screen. As part of that, in 2016, SMT acquired Sportvision.   


—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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