FoxTrax glowing puck: Was it the worst blunder in TV sports history, or was it just ahead of its time?

How Fox’s Reviled Glowing Puck Lit the Way for Sports Television Greatness

How Fox’s Reviled Glowing Puck Lit the Way for Sports Television Greatness

The stadium scene.
Jan. 28 2014 7:45 AM

Lame Puck

Was Fox’s glowing puck the worst blunder in TV sports history, or was it just ahead of its time?

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Unsurprisingly, these digital training wheels didn’t sit well with longtime fans. “Right from the start, I viewed the glow puck as a sad commentary on what outsiders thought of both hockey and American hockey fans,” said Wyshynski. “I remember hearing one of the announcers say that Canadians will hate the innovation but American fans will love it.” (This sentiment was indeed expressed by Peter Jennings in an interview during the 1996 All-Star game.) “The inference being that we’re too hockey-stupid to follow the play or that we need to be distracted by shiny new toys in order to watch the sport.”

The shocking truth about the glowing puck is that it was never supposed to glow it all. As Cavallaro wrote:

In our testing, we had just put a blue glow on the puck as an indicator that showed us that we were tracking. It was a diagnostic. And when we demo’d it to the Fox executives we told them that blue glow was just a placeholder. Fox assured us that their art department would develop a final look for the effect, but the one thing they were certain of is that it wouldn’t be the awful blue glow we showed them. In fact, [Fox Sports President] David Hill used to refer to it as that god damn blue hedgehog. Oddly enough, in the end it somehow stayed a blue glow.

No one ever offered a competing vision for how the puck might have popped on screen, but the word Cavallaro kept telling me was “subtler.” Of course, Fox wasn’t going for subtlety. And subtle or not, some people liked the glowing puck: Cavallaro claims that surveys yielded results “pretty close to 50-50.” The shouts of aggrieved diehards, though, drowned out the meek yelps of approval from neophytes.

Fan outrage didn’t kill the glowing puck. After the 1997-98 season, Fox lost its NHL broadcast rights to ABC. Since Fox essentially owned the glow puck technology, the black disc would never light up again.

In 1998, Cavallaro and Stan Honey, formerly of News Corp., launched their own sports technology company called Sportvision. You probably recognize some of Sportvision’s innovations: tracking systems for baseball pitches, a plethora of Olympics doodads, and the whiz-bang imagery that populated the screen during the America’s Cup. During the Super Bowl, Fox will deploy Sportvision’s famed yellow first-down line, as well as player pointers and a snazzy field-goal tracker.

Cavallaro, Sportvision’s chief scientist, says none of this would’ve been possible without the glowing puck, which helped build his reputation in the sports-tech world. “I think most people were impressed by the technology even if they hated the effect,” he says.

Most of today’s Sportvision projects are far different from the glowing puck. The puck—along with today’s NASCAR graphics—used active tracking, in which transponders are physically attached to an object and tracked with cameras. The vast majority of modern sports graphics use passive technology, wherein cameras pick up objects without the need for implanted tracking devices. Even so, Cavallaro says the tricks he learned about electronics and optics while working on the glowing puck have served him well as the sports graphics game has evolved. Wherever you see a yellow first-down line, the FoxTrax puck glows on, however faintly.

The biggest difference between the glowing puck and Sportvision’s subsequent projects isn’t the technology itself but the intent behind it. The first-down line is everything the glowing puck wasn’t: a subtle on-screen cue that helps us understand the game without jamming itself into the foreground. “In terms of any of the [more recent] effects that we’ve done, I’ve never thought about it in terms of the need for it,” Cavallaro says. “I’ve thought about it in terms of what becomes possible and what becomes interesting.” This was the fundamental problem with FoxTrax: It strived to attract viewers to the game rather than improve the viewing experience of those who were already watching. It became a product on its own rather than a broadcast enhancement.

Now that Cavallaro and his team at Sportvision have more experience with broadcast technology, he wouldn’t mind another crack at hockey, tracking not only the puck but all the players, too. “I’d like to make the effect much more subtle,” he assures me. Maybe this involves a much duller glow or no glow at all. Perhaps it would be a slight, black blur behind the puck that can easily be seen against the white ice without adding a foreign color to the viewer’s palette. Whether he gets a chance to improve on the most-hated effect in televised sports, Cavallaro wants the glowing puck to shed its bad reputation, to be looked upon fondly for all that its descendants have achieved in the decades hence. “I’d like it to be remembered,” he says, “as the project that opened the door for all of the things we do today.”

Aaron Gordon is a staff writer for Vice Sports. Follow him on Twitter.