The way football addicts experience the NFL will change fundamentally when the league makes public its in-house video feeds this season.
The Wall Street Journal reported on the NFL's plans to charge $69.99 for access to video previously available almost exclusively to teams. Grantland's Bill Barnwell offered some thoughts. I've got a few of my own:
This should be huge news for ESPN and other companies interested in mining information from games. The so-called "all-22" tape shows all 22 players for the duration of every play, once from an elevated sideline camera and also from an elevated end-zone camera. It'll now become possible to track playing-time stats more definitely, in addition to formations and whatever else teams can see.
The price tag seems almost laughably low for die-hards who have long envied Greg Cosell, Ron Jaworski and the select few with access to this video. The NFL must be aiming for the more casual fan, but I see potential challenges. This stuff is tedious to watch unless you're really, really interested in analyzing each play. TV networks have been taking fans closer to the action, creating a more visceral experience. The all-22 tape accomplishes the opposite, unless the NFL plans to enhance it. Imagine watching your favorite team from the stadium's rooftop, with no sound. That has been the all-22 experience -- great for some, but not for everyone, every play.
There aren't enough truly special players to fill a roster. That might become clearer from watching the all-22 video. Instead of focusing solely on the four or five top players from each team, fans will see the marginal ones as well. I don't think this will "expose" the product as inferior; the all-22 video will primarily serve a niche audience already in love with the game.
The all-22 video cuts out time between plays. That can make it tougher to pick up shifts and adjustments. Matt Hasselbeck pointed this out for a 2007 piece on his experience with video study. He credited information available through the broadcast (but not through the all-22 video) as important to setting the tone for Seattle's victory over Carolina in the NFC Championship Game. That was 2007. I'm not sure how much the experience has evolved lately.
This is heading in an exciting direction. At present, only teams have the ability to index plays, making them searchable and filterable by a long list of criteria (down, distance, alignments, play results, etc.). Teams can instantly produce "cutups" showing, say, every Steven Jackson run on first down from 12 personnel against odd fronts. Fans cannot do that -- yet.
For years, coaches and players could invoke the all-22 tape when dismissing questions about their performance. Having access to this video will make it easier for outsiders to become or pretend to become experts. It'll be easier for outsiders to lose sight of their limitations. The fact that anyone can access medical textbooks doesn't make everyone qualified to perform surgery. Football isn't as complicated as medicine, obviously, but having access to this video isn't the same as knowing what to make of it (and, importantly, what not to make of it). Teams aren't going to be handing over their game plans.
I've reached out to the league with additional questions about the new product. The last time I checked, the all-22 was not in high-definition across the board. That might have changed or could be changing.