Populous Magazine 12: New York Confirms
From the archive: Issue 12, 2015
From his command centre in New York city, Dean Blandino oversees officiating in every NFL game ever played. Ed Smith meets him on a busy game day.
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, runs perhaps the most sophisticated and highly evolved form of adjudication in world sport. The main man at Art McNally GameDay Central – NFL’s New York City-based officiating command centre – he uses cuttingedge technology to monitor and review ambiguous or illegal actions on the field of play. “My job,” he says, “is making sure a referee doesn’t make a mistake.”
This principle of “preventative officiating” lies at the heart of the NFL’s innovative approach. “On average, there are three mistakes per game, one of which will be overturned on review,” Blandino explains. “That’s about 98 per cent accuracy overall.” That is exceptionally high compared to most sports. But Blandino sounds matter-of-fact, as though he’s aiming for more. From the moment the week’s matches kick off, Art McNally GameDay Central (named after one of American football’s most legendary officials) becomes the NFL’s nerve centre. High up in an imposing skyscraper in midtown Manhattan – think global big business, not charming sports memorabilia – the video review facility captures every match, every play, from every angle.
The scene feels like NASA before lift-off. 88 gleaming television screens interrogate each aspect of the ten NFL games that are being simultaneously broadcast. A team of 20 NFL staff monitors the action across all the matches. Blandino mostly stands in the middle of the room, partly watching the screens himself, partly overseeing the whole scene.
After each play is completed, video analysts slow down the action, freezing and restarting the pictures with X-Box-style consoles.
A second or two later, a message from New York is fed back to the headsets of on-field umpires – even though they are hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away. Usually the crucial phrase from GameDay Central is “New York confirms”, signifying that the on-field verdict will stand. It is when New York does not confirm, however, that the system comes into its own.
After each play is completed, video analysts slow down the action, freezing and restarting the pictures with x-box-style consoles. A second or two later, a message from New York is fed back to the headsets of on-field umpires.
Like rugby and cricket, the NFL has a decision review system. Challenges can be issued by team coaches who disagree with the on-field verdict. The analysts at GameDay Central gather the evidence before the on-field umpire reaches his own replay monitor by the touchline.
“If there is a tight play,” Blandino explains, “I’m already looking at it before the challenge flag is shown.” By anticipating which plays will be reviewed, GameDay Central shaves two minutes off the average length of an NFL game.
The second type of review is issued by on-field officials who want a second opinion. In reality, this is two-way traffic, with New York constantly guiding the on-field officials.
There is enormous potential for stress inside GameDay Central. Think about it. The destiny of whole matches, seasons, careers – all hingeing on the assessment of people who are entirely removed from the action, without any physical or emotional connection to the drama out on the field of play. In that context, players and coaches have almost zero tolerance for mistakes.
But the mood is not frantic and anxious, instead it’s business-like and measured. Blandino radiates judicious confidence and the whole room takes its lead from him.
As athletes have to learn, concentration, far from being a strained or willed state of mind, is actually the absence of irrelevant thought. That is why great players, at moments of apparently epic stress, seem so calm. They keep things simple, even when the task is complex.
The same is true of officiating. In fact, Blandino’s attitude to his job – deep knowledge, constant self-improvement, the desire to move forward as well as to master existing technology – is reminiscent of top athletes. Above all, he seems to be doing the job he was born to do. One day, with luck, every elite sport – even those that cannot afford the high-tech wizardry of GameDay Central – will expect the same attitude from every top umpire or referee.
Populous planned the last 31 Super Bowls for the NFL. The 2015 venue in Phoenix, Arizona, is also one of the 15 current NFL stadia designed by Populous.
All of the United States’ top four sports now use centralised video replay facilities. In addition to the NFL’s Art McNally GameDay Central, the National Hockey League has its Situation Room, based in the Canadian city of Toronto; Major League Baseball has its Replay Operations Center, in New York City; the National Basketball Association was last to jump on the bandwagon, opening its Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, at the start of the 2014/2015 season.