ESPN Has Larger-Than-Life Presence at Open Championship

The British Open Championship golf tournament is very different animal from its three Major Championship cohorts — for players and broadcasters alike. The links-style courses, blistering winds, and foggy skies can drive players mad and often force production crews to make radical compromises in their coverage.

As a result, ESPN will take a unique approach to its exclusive coverage of golf’s oldest major this year at Royal St George’s in Sandwich, Kent, establishing a largely independent production that does not rely heavily on the world feed (produced by BBC Sport and SIS) and includes portable weather stations in an effort to counteract the weather.

“Throughout the years, we’ve become less and less reliant on the world feed from the BBC,” says ESPN VP of Production Mike McQuade. “Last year, at St. Andrews, we pretty much had control of 75%-80% of all the cameras out on the golf course, and that number has gone up to about 85% this year.”

A Production Unto Itself
This year, at Royal St George’s, ESPN will deploy 42 cameras — up from 35 last year and almost equal to the 54 world-feed cameras — for its 37 hours of live coverage on ESPN,, and ESPN Mobile TV.

“We have taken the BBC’s lead on where cameras should be placed on the golf course and supplemented that with our cameras in places you would traditionally see them in the United States, on holes and on tees,” says McQuade. “With the added cameras, you actually get to see the player. You get to see their face and expressions. You’re seeing them much closer than you’ve ever seen them before.”

ESPN’s colossal camera complement will include an RF X-Mo extreme slow motion system from Inertia Unlimited, an increased number of robotic cameras, a Strada crane that sits nearly 90 ft. in the air, and an airplane for aerial coverage.

Both the Strada crane — which had to be periodically grounded last year at St. Andrews because of 30-mph winds — and the airplane coverage will once again be most affected by the often nasty Open Championship climate.

Weather Stations Make a Splash
In an effort to monitor and combat these conditions, ESPN will deploy five portable weather stations at strategic points throughout the course to measure wind speed, wind direction, and temperature. Developed in conjunction with ESPN’s Emerging Technology arm, the units will allow ESPN to graphically display this data during the telecast.

“We’re hoping that that gives the viewer a better understanding and sense of which way the wind is blowing, specific to that area of the golf course and specifically to a hole,” says McQuade. “The wind may be blowing 25 mph out towards the outer portion of the golf course, and it may be blowing only 10 mph on the inner half of the course.”

Catering to the Stateside Folks
The 2011 Open Championship will mark ESPN’s second fully-HD outing across the pond, as well as its second consecutive year as the exclusive home for all four rounds of the tournament.

“It was really transformational last year in terms of the production approach to the Open Championship and how it had been done heretofore in the States, whether it was by Turner or by ABC,” says John Wildhack, EVP of programming acquisition and strategy for ESPN. “We kind of looked at last year as the start of a new era as to how the Open Championship would be presented to the U.S. audience.”

With more cameras than ever before producing a full HD show, ESPN believes this year’s Open coverage resembles more of what U.S. viewers have come to expect from their golf coverage — an issue that McQuade has described as ESPN’s “biggest challenge” over the past few years.

This American-viewer-oriented approach is a far cry from the ABC- and Turner-produced telecasts of just a few years ago, which relied almost entirely on the BBC world feed.

“Back in ’98 or ’99, it was the only major that we were involved with at ABC, and it felt like we played our major with rented clubs,” ESPN host Mike Tirico says of the previous Open coverage. “We went over and used the BBC as everything and just sprinkled in a little bit of our own equipment. That’s changed significantly here in the last three years, with ESPN broadcasting the Open Championship, Mike [McQuade] has been a big part of that.”

More Technology Than Ever
ESPN will deploy its Perfect Path technology, which graphically tracks drives on five holes at a time. The technology was used earlier this week to track the long bombs during ESPN’s Home Run Derby telecast.

In addition, Putt Zone virtually illustrates the path the player needs to hole a putt and will be used on the 4th, 9th, and 13th holes.

“The technology group has been over there three times to size up the greens,” says McQuade. ”You’re looking at the greens with the best slope. We also looked at [the last time the Open was at St. George’s in] 2003 and the greens and how they putted, and that’s how we came up with and chose the holes.”

Also on hand will be announcer touchscreens for scoring information, course maps, and weather as well as ORAD’s MVP enhanced telestrator system for analysis, which has been used for ESPN’s tennis coverage and Monday Night Football.

Not Just on Your TV Screen and ESPN Mobile TV will simulcast the live coverage of all four rounds of The Open Championship. In addition, will live-stream action from holes 1, 14, 15, 16, and 18. also will stream Spanish-language coverage as well as the BBC telecast.

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