With Help From ESPNU, NCAA Wrestling Championships Go HD On ESPN

By Carolyn Braff

Olympic sports often get bumped into the HD spotlight only when top-tier networks make room for them. For this year’s NCAA Wrestling Championships, however, ESPNU’s plans to broadcast the first three sessions in high-definition paved the way for ESPN to broadcast Saturday night’s finals in HD, for the first time.

“We made the commitment on ESPNU to do the quarterfinals, semifinals, and medal round in high-definition,” says John Vassallo, senior coordinating producer for ESPN. “When it got to Saturday night and the national championships, our colleagues in the HD unit in Bristol found out we were going to be there anyway doing HD for the three ESPNU shows, so why not come back and do the finals in HD on ESPN? This one was not a big sell because it didn’t have to be.”

With ESPN’s production moving to high-definition, all 11 hours of television coverage on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU this Friday and Saturday will be presented in HD, giving wrestling a real chance to shine.

Upgrading the show from SD to HD requires adjustments to the preproduction routine more than the on-air coverage.

“The HD challenge has more to do with how we preproduce graphics, animations, tease elements, things you wrap around the coverage,” Vassallo explains. “The mini-board graphics we use for clock and score technology, making sure all of that is compatible is really important. Structurally, the way you cover the event is basically the same.”

Those mini-board graphics — which require eight computers to tabulate scores, timing data, takedowns, reversals, and escapes, among other stats — are essential to fans’ understanding of the show. During the quarterfinals, ESPN crews have two cameras on each mat, and the production team moves among the four matches, following the most compelling moments. Fans who would rather make their own choices about which match to watch can log onto ESPN360.com, where all four feeds are available.

“We thought a quad box would be just too confusing on-air, so we have to switch around,” Vassallo says. “ESPN360 has done a terrific job of offering users the ability to click on any one of the four matches and get that full-frame on their computer.”

To produce the broadband feed, ESPN360 will rely on the Upper Cut system from RC Gear. Lyon Video provides the mobile-production facilities for the television feeds on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU.

Feeds from both semifinal matches will also be available on ESPN360, but in the second round, the television production gets creative. ESPN2 and ESPNU will use a side-by-side format to broadcast both semifinal matches at once.

“We made the decision a couple of years ago that we shouldn’t put ourselves in the editorial position of deciding which match we feel is most compelling in the semis; that’s hard enough to do in the quarterfinals,” Vassallo explains. “We wanted to bring our viewers both of those semifinal matches, and the only way we could do that is with side-by-side imagery. We have a camera on each mat and bring you simultaneous side-by-side coverage with a mini scoreboard on the bottom of each frame.”

Moving to 16:9 high-definition coverage offers far more flexibility for the side-by-side production, but Vassallo cautions that his team must always keep in mind the 4:3-SD audience that will see a version of the same feed.

“If it’s not title-safe for 4:3, we really can’t take liberties in HD,” Vassallo says. “We did discuss [whether], instead of using left-to-right boxes next year, we should maybe go top-bottom. That might allow for a better aspect ratio, but that came to us a little late for this year.”

For Saturday night’s finals, the network pulls out all the stops. The central mat at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis is elevated for the finals matches, so, in addition to seven cameras at mat level, ESPN is bringing in a jib camera.

“The jib is terrific because it allows you to get right on top of the wrestlers,” Vassallo says. “We use a 30- to 40-foot arm, and just to see them on the mat with that jib pole extended so you can literally look right down on them has been a terrific look for us.”

Two referees will be miked during the finals to capture their interactions with the wrestlers.

A staff of 85 will set up shop in St. Louis to ensure that this year’s production goes off without a hitch across all three networks and a broadband channel. Considering that, just six years ago, the NCAA wrestling championships were presented as a 90-minute tape-delayed show, the 11 hours of HD programming ESPN will produce this weekend shows that wrestling has come a long way.

“This is the perfect marriage of a sport that is on the rise and platforms that can give the sport the outlet it really deserves,” Vassallo says. “Wrestling is one of my favorites. It’s not an event you’ve been to, and it’s one you have to see to believe.”

The believing begins this Friday, March 20, at 11 a.m. ET on ESPNU and ESPN360.com.

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters