Live From the NFL Draft: ESPN’s Production, Ops Teams Move on Up in Chicago

ESPN’s NFL Draft production is bigger than ever this year in its new home at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre and across Michigan Ave. at Draft Town in Grant Park. In order to present 42 hours of NFL Draft Week programing, ESPN has rolled out nearly 30 cameras, three on-site sets, four production trucks, 400 pre-produced analysis/highlights packages and player personality bumpers, 20 live remote shots of draftees at home, and Glowpoint HD videoconferencing feeds from all 32 team sites. On top of all that, SportsCenter is originating live from the Draft for the first time on Thursday and Friday. ESPN has upped the ante in the Windy City, and it’s all to the beat of legendary Chicago soul singer Curtis Mayfield’s Move on Up – the theme of ESPN’s Draft this year performed by soul/R&B duo LION BABE.

Draft Town at Grant Park in Chicago

Draft Town at Grant Park in Chicago

“Chicago definitely changes things a lot,” says coordinating producer Seth Markman. “We have done Radio City so many times in New York and we obviously loved it there, but I think it needed a jolt of energy and that’s exactly what it’s going to get in Chicago. The nature of the NFL’s indoor/outdoor Draft setup allowed us to put sets inside the Auditorium Theatre and across the street in Grant Park. That definitely made for some logistical challenges, but, luckily, we have such a great team who were able to get it done.”

A Longer (and Tougher) Fiber Run to the Theatre
ESPN rolled out all four of NEP’s EN-1 mobile units – up from three last year at Radio City Music Hall – to its Grant Park truck compound on the east side of Michigan Ave. The compound, which is powered by Illumination Dynamics generators, is linked to its show inside the Auditorium Theatre via a truss running 16 feet overhead Michigan Ave. that includes fiber and power connectivity.

Senior Operations Director Steve Carter on hand at Draft Town near ESPN's truck compound

Senior Operations Director Steve Carter on hand at Draft Town near ESPN’s truck compound

“The overall event is bigger from the NFL side and Grant Park is a major part of that,” says Steve Carter, Senior Operations Director, ESPN. “At Radio City, we were on the site right next to the theater and ran maybe 100 feet [of cable] to the theatre. Here, we are running 1,500 feet of fiber from our trucks to get into the theatre – two TAC-72 [fiber paths]. The whole event is so spread out and the theatre is the furthest [from the compound] and our outside set is the closest. The physical distance from point A to B takes time and you have to cross Michigan Ave. in the process, but we were able to deal with those challenges.”

ESPN has plenty of connectivity on site with access to all 32 team sites via Glowpoint HD videoconferencing and the ability to bring up to 10 feeds at a time into the truck with four fiber feeds going out of Chicago back to its Bristol, CT, headquarters (with a satellite uplink backup provided by PSSI).

Thinking Outside the Box: From Radio City to Auditorium Theatre
Inside the theatre, both ESPN and NFL Network both had to rethink their strategies due to the fact that the Auditorium Theatre offers roughly half the footprint of Radio City Music Hall. ESPN’s primary set is located at the far right of the house and features a pie-shaped four-chair desk that is 19 feet long and 14 feet wide at its widest point. The four-camera set utilizes two robotic cameras (as well as a short jib and long jib) due to a lack of space for manned camera platforms and has taken over patron viewing boxes adjacent to the set for camera locations as well.

ESPN's set inside the Auditorium Theatre

ESPN’s set inside the Auditorium Theatre

In addition, ESPN has replaced the small NFL Insiders set previously located in the mezzanine at Radio City with a very small position in the back of the house, which will once again be manned by Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter.

“We had to change the way we look at things,” says Carter. “We just don’t have the same space anymore, so we are using robot cameras on that set and thinking of new ways to get things done. It is a different philosophy and approach to the way we are doing the show, but we don’t think it is going to change the scope of it. It is still going to be a very big event.”

In terms of cameras, ESPN has a 24-foot jib with augmented reality capability (for virtual banners and player cards), two RF SteadiCams and two RF handhelds (provided by AVS), as well as a beauty cam and shared podium cam with NFL Network. In the players’ green room, which is located on a specially constructed second level due to lack of backstage space at the Theatre, ESPN has deployed reporter Suzy Kolber, three handheld cameras, and a robotic camera (provided by Fletcher Sports) to capture players walking down the stairs to the podium as they are drafted.

ESPN Out on the Draft Town in Grant Park
ESPN’s Draft Town presence in Grant Park is headlined by its set near Selection Square, which look out upon the Chicago skyline. The 40 ft. x 40 ft. set is home to ESPN’s shoulder programming (NFL Insiders and NFL Live) and SportsCenter live editions on Thursday and Friday before transitioning to its primary set on Saturday when the Auditorium Theatre goes dark and picks are announced live in each team’s home city. The set features five cameras, including a small jib, and features a small side set with an individual camera for quick live hits.

ESPN's Grant Park set near Selection square looks out up on the Chicago Skyline

ESPN’s Grant Park set near Selection Square looks out on the Chicago skyline

“After the Draft ends [on Thursday and Friday] we will throw it right to SportsCenter outside, so it’s a very cool linking of programming,” says Markman. “Then Day 3 everything goes outside, so we will be ready for that on Saturday.”

In order to capture the various activities taking place throughout Grant Park, ESPN installed several handheld camera drops all over Draft Town in order to repo cameras at will. ESPN has also deployed a jib at Selection Square and JLG boom lift outfitted with a robo that can raise as high as 120 feet in the air and pan the entire park.

“We looked at all the various locations in Grant Park and are very happy with what we came up with,” says Carter. “You look at the size and scope of Grant Park and it’s awfully big. You have three areas you want to cover – our stage, Selection Square, and then all the other things going on in Grant Park with the [fan experience]. I think we have definitely covered all three of those elements very well.”

Armed With Plenty of A-Level Content
ESPN has always taken pride in both the quality and quantity of its preproduced player highlight packages and personality bumpers, and this year is no different. With 325 highlight packages, 50 player bumps, and 25 specialty technical breakdowns, ESPN’s stable of preproduced content is bigger than ever.

“We are always very proud of the preproduced elements and it’s what we believe has always separated our Draft coverage from others,” says Markman. “Anyone can throw out a number like 325 highlight packages, but we think it’s the level of detail in those highlight packages that separate them. And nobody does anything like the detailed analysis in our technical breakdowns. When someone is picked, we want to provide the best video and analysis to make for the best viewer experience.”

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