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My teeth were firmly gritted for most of the recent USA v Romania match. If I relaxed my jaw, the string of profanities to come out would be like one of those magician’s handkerchiefs.
It was not just the Eagles’ play that made me think the match could look better. Watching the Eagles fall behind 20-0 and ultimately lose 23-10 was the source of most of, but not all of, the frustration. Also frustrating were the camera angles and degree of zoom being used. This is not a frustration that is limited to this match.
In talking with my brother, Ethan, for The Carter Divide—the podcast that is an ongoing conversation between a die hard fan and relatively novice fan—it is clearer to me now more than ever that how a match is presented on the screen makes a big difference in whether it will be interesting to fringe or new fans.
I have never worked in television, so my suggestions are likely slightly naïve. However, I remain confident that those with expertise could still use the principles and make this idea work.
The basic idea is that people are making choices about how matches are shown without fully understanding the effect of the decisions and what a “best case scenario” might look like. There are choices that can be made in how to present a match that will increase the production value without increasing production cost.
World Rugby should invest in a How-To guide for broadcasting rugby matches. Currently, there is no standard. In plenty of places around the world, the crews working these matches are not rugby fanatics. Even in places where production crews have lots of experience working in rugby, some matches look better than others.
To create this guide, select a match in a competition like the Green King IPA Championship—the standard of play is good, the venues are good but not huge stadiums so the lessons learned can be widely applied, and it should be possible to work out the rights.
Spend the money to double (or more likely increase by a third) the cameras normally used in, say, an Aviva Premiership match. Vary the height and angles of the cameras.
During the match, hire two directors to run the broadcast, each independent of the other. Instruct one to work utilizing many close-ups and narrow shots. Instruct the other to work with wide shots showing lots of the field at once.
After the match, create a match tape that does not use all of the cameras, but uses the best combination of shots from a set number of cameras. So if a typical Aviva Premiership match uses 10 cameras in a production, put together a tape using 10 of the, say 15, available cameras.
Getting input from different kinds of viewers about what combination of shots make the game most compelling would not be easy, but would be ideal.
This experience should lead to a better understand of how different a match looks depending on the decisions of the producer and director. World Rugby can then create a document with recommendations and could share the different match tapes. The document can include clear information such as height of the cameras used.
It is in everyone’s interest to increase the number of rugby fans around the world. One way to do that is to make a match like USA v Romania look as good as possible.
My assumption is that the game is easier to follow and more interesting when the viewer is able to see a large piece of the field and most of the players. I would love to know if those not already invested in the sport agree with me.
For instance, in the second half, the Eagles had at least two occasions when a forward made a little pop pass from the base of a ruck to another forward. The idea was Forward A pops to Forward B. Forward B carries into contact. Forward A is immediately there to clear out. The scrum half then has quick, clean ball to work with. If things go well, the ball is quick and the defense is on their heels when the scrum half makes his pass.
When the camera only shows the ruck, and nothing of what is happening off the ball, there is no way for someone who doesn’t already understand the game to understand what is happening. “Why did that one big guy just run into that other big guy? Shouldn’t they really be trying to move the ball forward? It looks like they just want to be tackled.”
Here is Blaine Scully with a strong carry. A close up of Scully running over a scrum half does my heart good. However, without the close up, the viewer would have been able to anticipate that contact and enjoy it even more. Beyond that, when Nate Augspurger plays the ball from the ruck, there is no way to know what his options are before he makes the pass.
There is a good reason teams want to use drones at training. A ground level, close-up is not what is needed to show and understand what is really happening. Far too often, a player kicks from hand and the television (or streaming) audience has little to no sense of why because we cannot see where his support players are and how well the opposition has prepared for a kick. We don’t need to see facial expressions as the ball is kicked; we need to see the field and where the players are on it.
This problem is an instance when no one is acting badly, but things still need to be better. Directors, producers, camera operators all want to do a good job. In many places, though, television sports professionals don’t know what a good job looks like for a rugby broadcast.
The investment cost to create this How-To guide seems to be double what it would cost to produce one match, given the additional staffing and equipment, plus some more for additional editing and sharing information through the appropriate channels. In terms of growing the game, this is a worthy investment.