Power Hitter Profile: Steve Hellmuth – Producer, Systems Developer, Executive
Throughout a successful career as a sports executive, Steve Hellmuth has always enjoyed working on a mix of production, live events, systems design, and technology. Currently executive vice president of operations and technology for the NBA and chairman of the SVG Advisory Board, he has developed statistical systems, directed facility construction, and created digital-media archives, but some of his proudest achievements are his production credits. During stints with NBC, MLB, and the NBA, he produced events ranging from Larry Bird’s retirement night at Madison Square Garden to openings for the World Series, but he began in the much lower-profile world of independent films.
After graduating with a B.A. in art history from Princeton University, Hellmuth came up a few credits shy of earning a masters degree in cinema studies from New York University’s Film School. While a student, he spent his time working on independent, experimental films and helping to run a catering business.
“Most of the time I was broke, but I learned a lot about the film industry,” Hellmuth laughs. “It was an exciting time in my life. It encouraged my thinking about innovation and the importance of media preservation.”
Seeing in SECAM
The first job that put Hellmuth on the sports track was as an NBC Sports production administrator, working on profiles of athletes competing in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The profiles were to be broadcast in SECAM (Sequential Color with Memory), the broadcasting standard at the time for the Soviet Union, so Hellmuth got a crash course in transferring films and editing in SECAM, as well as a whirlwind tour of the U.S. and Europe.
“I got to travel through Germany several times doing profiles of athletes, through Czechoslovakia, and back and forth across the U.S.,” he recalls. “It was a fascinating beginning in the film business. I was responsible for the light case; I would change the film mags; I would drive the van, arrange for the plane tickets, do the catering. I was required to do double duty as the production manager and a technician on the shoots, and often I was responsible for booking the athletes as well. My main mentor was the late Barry Winik of WW Films, one of the best film sports directors of photography ever.”
A Little Bit of Everything
From the Olympic-profile unit, Hellmuth transitioned into a position as unit manager and production manager at NBC Sports, where he worked from 1979 to 1987.
“I did tennis, college basketball, baseball, everything that came my way,” he says. “I really enjoyed it and became very competent in budgeting, operations, and remote management across the board.”
Hellmuth’s main mentor at NBC Sports was the great Ted Nathanson, a member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. The two worked together on the NFL games and NFL studio show for four years.
Along the way, Hellmuth kept his production credits fresh by producing the opening for the 1986 World Series, among other spots. He also helped to get the 1983 NFL show running and shared a studio with David Letterman.
“Working with the great NBC scenic designers and lighting directors taught me volumes,” he says. “I love doing studio work.”
A New Start in DC
After marrying his wife, Theresa, Hellmuth accepted an offer to become general manager of Potomac Television, a startup company that produced Washington news for TV stations across the country and provided news releases to Capitol Hill.
“I helped build the company,” he says. “We had the CNN contract for news crews in Washington and created a video–news-release channel to local television stations.”
First Jump Shots
However, when the NBA called looking for a director of operations for NBA Entertainment, Hellmuth thought that might be more challenging. He joined the basketball league in 1990 and moved up the ladder from running the postproduction outfit to overseeing all broadcast operations. He also began developing the NBA’s statistical system.
“When the NBA was on NBC, they were unable to provide real-time graphics on the air because they didn’t have a computer interface to statistics,” he explains. “They couldn’t show stats except after a break because they couldn’t update them fast enough to show them.
“At the NBA,” he continues, “I developed a statistical system with an eye toward updating television graphics, indexing digital media in the future, driving arena scoreboards with real-time data, and ultimately becoming the real-time NBA data source for the world via the Web.”
Hellmuth has produced a number of live events at the NBA, most notably Larry Bird’s retirement night.
“That was a really special event,” he says. “I was loaned out by the NBA to the Celtics, and I got to work with Red Auerbach on that. It turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of my career.”
On to the Diamond
In 1998, Major League Baseball wooed Hellmuth away from the NBA to serve as senior vice president of MLB Productions, and he continued to flex his production muscles.
“I was responsible for putting their production company back on its own two feet,” he says. “I put my production hat back on over there, and I got a chance to produce the All-Century Team presentation at Fenway Park, with Ted Williams. Mike Weisman was the lead Fox baseball producer, and he and I teamed up to make the event work for TV.”
A New Basketball Challenge
After three years, Hellmuth transitioned back to the NBA, where he was put in charge of information technology, broadcast operations and engineering, and Internet services.
“Because the statistical system I developed worked well, the NBA put me in charge of IT,” he explains. “That was essential for the NBA in terms of its development of NBA as a digital property and the development of digital-media management.”
He also has oversight of the construction of facilities in terms of broadcast standards, having developed the arena-construction guidelines for camera positions, lighting, and audio that define the theater for NBA basketball. And he designed the LED backboards that illuminate at the end of each quarter, created clear shot clocks over the basket stanchions, and implemented courtside digital signage.
Recently, he has become deeply involved with the NBA operations group’s work with instant-replay and courtside-scoring technology.
“The challenge for me is to yield deeper pools of knowledge to satisfy fans and explain the nature of the game,” Hellmuth says. “We’re looking at next-generation statistical systems driven by an automated player-tracking system.”
With his able VP of Engineering Mike Rokosa and a partnership with 3D guru Vince Pace, Hellmuth was able to produce the first sporting event ever in live 3D, the 2007 NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas. “We had two theaters with 500 seats each at the Mandalay Bay, and the fans could not have been happier unless they were at the venue in courtside seats.”
Work Across the Globe
Hellmuth’s other focus in his current position is communicating globally with fans in multiple languages.
“We want the NBA experience to be customized for people on a global basis who have interest in the NBA not only because they love basketball but because they love their countrymen who have come to the NBA to play at the highest level,” he says.
Working with colleagues at NBA China, he adds, is both a challenge and an opportunity. “You learn so much when you work with NBA China because they have such an advanced online culture. You learn things that you can bring back and implement in the USA.”
When he’s not at work, Hellmuth is usually in an art museum, reading a book, or playing golf.
“I’m a pretty avid golfer at this point,” he says. “That’s my sport. I used to play tennis and basketball, but the knees dictate golf.”
He lives in Short Hills, NJ, with his wife. He has two children: Alexandra is a 2010 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, and Nick is a sophomore at Villanova University.
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