TAMPA — There are inherent dangers that come with football, some with long-accepted risk of injury or even worse.
That's not just players on the field who could give or take a hit to the head or neck. It's a team's video staffers who, for decades, were precariously perched 50 feet above, just to record practice.
The Bucs got a little bit safer last week, embracing a new technology that takes away nearly all risk by keeping their people safely on the ground.
"End of the day, we're not using scissor lifts anymore, and that's huge," said Brett Greene, entering his second season as the team's video director, leading a five-person staff. "We're happy, and very thankful for ownership to approve this. It's such a blessing because it makes our staff so much safer during practice."
For decades, recording a football practice involved a hydraulic lift, a small platform that can be elevated to put a staffer some 50 feet up, in position to see the entire practice field. The biggest risk was a susceptibility to high winds. Tragedy struck in 2010 when a strong gust blew over the lift at a Notre Dame football practice, killing the 20-year-old student who was on it.
The Bucs this spring joined a growing number of NFL and college teams using new technology. They're the 25th NFL team to work with 8K Solutions, a company based across the state in Titusville. The team bought three "mast cams" — a small trailer that has a mast that extends up 55 feet with a camera at the top, allowing someone on the ground, seated in shade, watching a TV monitor, to zoom and pan as they need to.
It wasn't just wind that was a danger for video crews. Sunscreen can only do so much, and even with bottles of cold water pulled up in a sack by a rope, getting coverage with floppy hats and wet towels around their necks, there was a risk of passing out due to heatstroke while up there.
With summertime afternoon practices in Florida, teams faced the threat of a sudden storm and vulnerability to lightning. Players can run off the field immediately, but it took a few minutes to get the lifts down and staffers safely inside.
"Everybody instituted some really strict wind-related guidelines, and all these other problems were popping up," said Bob White, 8K's vice president of sales. "Everybody came to the realization that having somebody 40 feet up in the air is just not a good idea. … All of those guys, every one has a close-call experience or just says 'I am terrified up there at times.' It was a necessary evil to get the job done.
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"Now that there's an alternative, I have guys now that say 'I am never going back up again.' "
Since the Notre Dame accident, teams are much more aware of the threat of wind, creating logistical challenges beyond the safety issues. If the wind is measured in excess of 20 miles per hour, the Bucs wouldn't raise their lifts, which meant taping practice from a corner of the top of One Buc Place, or going to their indoor facility or across the street to Raymond James Stadium.
"Technology is unbelievable," Koetter said. "This just eliminates the need to put your film guys up there. You're getting everything with much less risk to your film guys and better mobility, as you can move those things around a lot easier."
The mastcam units weigh only 1,300 pounds each, so they can be towed easily from one location to another, doing much less damage than heavier equipment.
The Bucs got a closer look at the technology in preseason last year, when they held joint practices with the Jaguars in Jacksonville and saw what they were using. The camera stations are integrated in with the same editing software the Bucs use to cut up tape, allowing coaches to easily view by position or situation on the field.
Each mastcam unit starts around $75,000, and the Bucs bought three, including one with two cameras that can sit between two practice fields and shoot both at the same time.
After the Notre Dame accident, USF's athletic department in 2011 looked into building permanent towers on concrete slabs between the practice fields, at a cost of about $80,000 each. They're still using scissor lifts right now, and 8K said their only clients among the college programs in the state are Florida and Florida International. Some teams have tried to use drone technology, but that's sometimes only to supplement more traditional camera systems.
The Bucs got four new cameras to go with the mast units, with an annual service agreement as well. Koetter said the Glazer family has always been supportive when the team needs new technology, especially with an eye toward safety.
"Every business has a budget, but our ownership has been fantastic in giving us the things we need to move forward," Koetter said. "I couldn't be happier with that."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.