The View From Above: How Spidercam Will Change the Look of Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football may enter the 2012 campaign with its usual slick feel, a funny series of commercials, and that iconic theme music, but make no mistake: ESPN has made production changes that the network hopes will put its NFL-game coverage at the top of the heap.

An arsenal of new cameras, including the versatile aerial system Spidercam, and a new two-man booth with play-by-play man Mike Tirico and analyst Jon Gruden promise to streamline the presentation and improve the analytical ability of its announcers when MNF premieres its 43rd season on Monday with a doubleheader beginning with the Bengals-Ravens at 7 p.m. ET.

“Our team is very cognizant of the history of Monday Night Football,” says Tirico. “There’s nothing that’s had a run like this in the history of American sports television, and it has been a great six‑year experience so far. I look forward to many more with Jon, our producer Jay Rothman, and all of the talented folks.”

Spidercam’s First Impressions
The same aerial camera system that ESPN uses for US Open and Australian Open tennis and for ABC primetime college football, Spidercam makes the leap to the big stage of Monday Night Football, and the production and broadcast teams are excited about the addition.

“It has increased stability, is quiet, is faster, and has increased safety measures,” says Chris Calcinari, VP, Event Operations, at ESPN. “Plus it can get much lower and has a much bigger fly space so we can do a lot more with it. It’s an exciting enhancement.”

The most notable change on MNF this year will be Spidercam, the aerial camera system that ESPN uses for US Open and Australian Open tennis as well as for ABC primetime college football.

The MNF crew had the opportunity to get familiar with Spidercam during two preseason games. In a series of tests during a game in New England, the camera was able to get behind the goalposts and deep into the crowd up to the announce booth for a new view of the announcers.

Spidercam offers much more versatility than the aerial camera system used previously, Skycam, and can reach virtually any point within the bowl of the stadium. It can even get directly above the goal line for shots of players breaking the plane that MNF has never been able to get before.

“With the wider fly zone, more shots are possible,” says MNF director Chip Dean. “It’s better stabilized and faster so it gives me a wider variety of shots, whether it’s in the crowd or behind a kickoff. I’ve found that the shots that I have available have a bigger impact on our presentation.”

Gruden loves the new tool and the opportunities it gives him as an analyst.

“I’m addicted to it,” he says. “I think it’s the best view of a football game I’ve ever seen. And when we didn’t have it for the first two preseason games, I couldn’t even walk straight, I was so disappointed. It’s such a great teacher. I take some of this film, I’m not kidding you, around the country to different colleges studying film. The players love it. The coaches love it. I know the fans love it, and I certainly love it as well.”

Red Zone Surrounded
This offseason and preseason saw a tremendous amount of prep work by the MNF staff.

The production team met with Gruden in Tampa for a three-day meeting to discuss and brainstorm the show’s replay philosophy and how to better utilize the coach’s analytical ability. Like many coaches, he sees the game from the perspective of the side he’s speaking about. If he is breaking down an offensive player, for example, he wants a view from behind the offense.

To accommodate that perspective, ESPN upgraded to Spidercam and also brought back, after a short hiatus, its goalpost cameras. Using Spidercam and the goalpost cameras together will allow the technicians to completely surround both sides of the ball with low, revealing camera angles when a team is in the red zone.

“Certainly, when we get into a goal-line situation or if the offense is backed up on their own one-foot line, we’ll be able to get some great views of the center-quarterback exchange, guys like [Baltimore Ravens lineman] Haloti Ngata, some of the dominant players that play inside in key situations,” says Gruden. “So we are excited about those two cameras.”

Gear Adjustments
The biggest technical change for MNF is a move to Sony HDC-2500 cameras across the entire show, including the studio show. Other changes include an upgrade to the Grass Valley Kayenne production switcher and four new cameras rented from Fletcher: two NAC Hi-Motion II ultra-high-speed cameras and two robotic goalpost cameras.

“The big changes come next year as we have committed to build four new trailers with NEP,” adds Calcinari. “We are really focused on doing things that make the viewing experience better for the fans. And the additions we have made will result in pictures with better resolution.”

MNF’s preseason slate proved to be grueling, with the team practicing with its new cameras and angles in four games over just 15 days. In all, the crew logged more than 19,600 work hours and travelled more than 51,700 miles. The operations team of Steve Carter, Eddie Okuno, Andy Davenport, Matt Kwok, Kim Conrad, Paula Orange, Chris Strong, Katie Gorman, and Keith Kice were critical in coordinating all production and management efforts that have Monday Night Football geared up for another successful season.

Ken Kerschbaumer and Jason Dachman contributed to this report.