SEC Network Takes on Live Gymnastics With Innovative New Scoring Interface
When 13,000 screaming fans pour into Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, AL, on Friday night for another nationally televised showdown in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, they won’t be doing so for a basketball game. Instead, the building will be rocking as two of the top gymnastics teams in the country square off, and ESPN and SEC Network will be on hand to produce the dual meet live in a way that gymnastics has rarely been seen on television.
In this, the first year of SEC Network, ESPN has made a commitment to bring women’s gymnastics — specifically, the SEC brand, which has produced nine of the last 10 NCAA National Championship teams — live to national viewers, something that even ESPN has never done before.
“This is really the first time, in my career at least, that I’m doing a sport that I’m completely unfamiliar with, that we really don’t have any experience producing,” says Meg Aronowitz, coordinating producer, ESPN and SEC Network. “In a way, it’s very refreshing for those of us that have been working on it because it’s new, it’s exciting, and it’s like painting on a blank canvas.”
In typical ESPN style, the SEC Network team is tackling this new venture head-on with a new piece of innovation. ESPN Technology has developed a live-scoring interface system that allows the production team to graphically insert a live score ticker on screen, something never before seen on a gymnastics telecast.
“One thing I’ve always noticed in watching collegiate gymnastics is that I never really knew who was winning or what the score was,” says Aronowitz, noting that the team has been working on the technology since last year’s SEC gymnastics championships. “I just felt lost watching two hours of gymnastics. So it was really important to me that we came up with some kind of a ticker system. We are now in the final phase of developing the interface with our graphics system. That will make things that much smoother and that much quicker.”
The original design had code written to interface with the Beaver Creek software and ProScore scoring systems that the SEC schools have onsite. However, it was quickly recognized in the first three weeks of the programming package that even that system was not quick enough to keep up with the need to feed the on-screen ticker. Now the code has actually been rewritten to go to a manual system that requires spotters at each position. The final product is than simply inserted on-screen by the ChyronHego Duet graphics engine in the truck.
Making live television coverage of gymnastics work is trickier than it seems. The sport, even at its highest level at the Olympics, is typically aired on some form of tape delay. College gymnastics meets that aired on ESPN in the past, including the NCAA Championships, were packaged by an outside media packager. These SEC gymnastics meets mark the first time an ESPN crew has handled a college gymnastics production.
That has meant starting from scratch, including a day-long training session at the Charlotte, NC-based SEC Network facilities, where gymnastics analysts shared their expertise with ESPN production personnel and vice versa.
“The most important thing for me was making sure that we had the opportunity to learn about gymnastics ourselves,” says Aronowitz. “It’s a unique sport and one that you traditionally don’t have a lot of talking in. We knew we were going to have those opportunities to [tell the story] in the broadcast but we needed to educate our talent team on how we go about producing television. It was a beautiful collaboration.”
Another important bit of cooperation has come from the SEC’s gymnastics coaches and their respective programs. A lot needed to be worked out between the two sides to make a gymnastics meet compelling live television, and a lot of it had to do with timing. For example, in the flow of a dual meet, there is typically only 15 seconds from the time one student-athlete finishes her routine on, say, the uneven bars before another begins her routine in the floor exercises. The coaches were accommodating in extending that window to as much as 30 seconds, allowing room for replays, student-athlete information, and more.
“Fifteen seconds in television time might as well be two seconds,” says Aronowitz. “So we had a long talk with the coaches about what it would mean to be on television and what it would mean to be able to do it live. You’ve really got to give the coaches credit; they wanted to put their product on live. They didn’t really have any interest in tape delay, and they really wanted to make Friday night a destination for SEC Gymnastics. I was very surprised at how accommodating they were.”
In addition, at most SEC gymnastics meets, the host school has a flashy and show-stopping intro that can last as long as 20 minutes and leads directly into the first event. Host schools have agreed to push that event back so that SEC Network can come on the air and set the scene prior to the first event at :06 or :07 past the hour.
A typical SEC Network/ESPN gymnastics broadcast will be a six-camera (two hard, our handheld) shoot and will be serviced by a traditional 53-ft. production truck.
Aronowitz says that, although some athletic departments — which handle the production on a sizable portion of the live event production for SEC Network — do produce gymnastics for the digital platform, they will not be called on to assist on any of the linear productions in this first year. That may not be too far off, however.
“We felt it was important for us to figure out how to cover gymnastics live before we asked them to jump in and do it,” she says. “This is one of the most challenging sports that I have ever done, in terms of iso charts, camera placements, and rotations. You’re always moving cameras, tape machines, and replay sources, and it would probably be much to ask that from them now for the linear network. The good thing is, they are all watching us and learning.”