Final Four on a Football Field Challenges Producers and Athletes

By Carolyn Braff

The Final Four teams remaining in the NCAA men’s basketball championship will convene in Detroit this weekend to crown a national champion — in the middle of a football stadium. Ford Field, home to the NFL’s Detroit Lions, hosts this year’s Final Four in a new configuration that will bring more fans to the game but provide plenty of challenges, for both the production teams and the athletes.

In prior years, when basketball has been played in a domed football stadium, half the building was curtained off, and the court ran perpendicular to the field. For the 2009 Final Four, the court will be placed parallel to the field at the 50-yard line, opening the entire stadium for seats.

“It’s going to have a Super Bowl look to it, but it’s a basketball game out there on the middle of that field,” explains CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz. “It’s going to look different from any game anyone’s ever seen.”

CBS has broadcast from Ford Field in this configuration twice before — for a regular-season game in December 2003 and then for a regional round during last year’s tournament — but additional cameras and new angles will make this production feel much more intimate.

“We’re going to be more intimate in our coverage because the cameras are going to be closer,” says Bob Fishman, director of the Final Four on CBS.

The super-slo-mo cameras are traditionally placed in a low-corner position, not an ideal location because they tend to block seats. This year, however, a super-slo-mo camera will be placed on the court, in the large out-of-bounds area in the near right corner.

“That should give not only some tremendous reaction shots but super-slow-motion replays to supplement what we already have at mid court and under the baskets,” Fishman says.

Other new elements for this year’s production include improvements to the overhead fly cam — CBS Eye Vision — and the addition of two robotic cameras on the far side of the court. The team benches are below court level, so the robotic units will be positioned on the court to get looks at the benches and also to show action, substitutions, and “coaches doing their antics on the sideline,” as Fishman says.

The announce positions will also be slightly raised this year, about halfway between the bench floor and court level, so that Nantz and Kellogg will have a better line of sight, which has been an issue in past years.

How will a venue with a seating capacity of 65,000 affect a game generally played to crowds one quarter that size?

“In general, when you’re in larger facilities, you have a tendency to lose some of that intimacy,” explains Clark Kellogg, analyst for CBS. “I’m anxious to see how the environment is going to be different. When you have smaller facilities that are stacked and packed, that’s been the ideal venue for basketball at the Final Four. This configuration will be a little different, something new.”

The NCAA is placing the student sections under both baskets, to bring the rowdiest fans in the venue closer to the action, which should help bring some of that stacked-and-packed feel to the wide-open stadium.

“It’s a brilliant stroke to put the students closer to the action,” Nantz says. “I think that the game is going to have a really big feel, but I don’t think it’s going to seem vacant at all.”

Harold Bryant, SVP of production for CBS, notes that the production team will lean on the audio to make sure fans at home hear the environment as well as they see it.

“We’ve moved the play-by-play cameras closer to make a more intimate angle with the court,” says Bob Dekas, coordinating producer of CBS Sports’ NCAA basketball coverage. “I think it’s going to be terrific.”

What might not be so terrific, however, is the players’ shooting percentages. With so much space between the backboard and the stands, Nantz is worried that the athletes’ depth perception might be affected.

“It’s a long way from the back of that basketball goal until you hit the stands,” he says. “I would really be surprised if field-goal percentages weren’t way off in this Final Four. North Carolina’s a high-scoring team, and Michigan State is not. I would think that that might be a little bit of an advantage for the home team, which already plays great defense.”

The Final Four tips off on Saturday April 4 at 6 p.m. ET.

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