SVG Sit-Down: Fletcher Sports’ Grainge Talks New Facility, Growth of High-Speed–Camera Market
It has been nearly a year and a half since Fletcher Sports moved into its new facility in Burr Ridge, IL, just outside Chicago following VER’s acquisition of Fletcher Chicago’s 16mm, 35mm, and digital-camera–rental division in November 2013. The Fletcher name and sports-division facilities in Chicago; Charlotte, NC; and London remained under the sole ownership of the Fletcher family, and the company has continued to supply high-speed and robotic cameras to thousands of sports events a year.
SVG sat down with Fletcher Sports VP Dan Grainge to discuss the new facility, how he handles the busy months of April and May, Fletcher’s latest equipment investments, the growth of the Fletcher London operation, and how e-licensing of the latest Sony and Grass Valley cameras impacts (or doesn’t impact) the sports rental business.
Can you tell me a bit about the new Fletcher Sports facility and how the transition from the old Chicago facility went?
We made the switch basically when we brought everything back from Sochi [Olympics] directly here in March  and hit the ground running with the NCAA Tournament, then baseball, then NBA Playoffs.
We love our space here. We [had] 25,000 sq. ft. before, but it was very disjointed between the [sports and film divisions]. Now, here in Burr Ridge, we are all one continuous sports facility, and it’s so much more convenient and open. The space is smaller, but it certainly feels better.
This is one of your busiest times of year, with MLB in full swing, NBA and NHL Playoffs going on, and major events like Mayweather-Pacquiao and Triple Crown horseracing. How do you handle it all?
I think we were on just about every other sporting event that weekend [May 2-3] on television, all the way down to soccer games. So are we busy? Yes. Is there more pressure? No. It’s nothing overly stressful, and, honestly, the reason is simply that our stuff works. If we had problems week in and week out, it would be an issue. And that really comes down to the fact that our strongest asset is our people onsite. Almost all of our shows have a Fletcher freelancer onsite, and that really makes things smooth.
In terms of equipment purchases, what area of technology has Fletcher made the most significant investment in recently?
I would say the most recent technologies that we’ve invested in are all in the high-speed realm.
The Pico [miniature high-speed camera] is probably the one that people don’t know about. We now have seven Picos working continuously with the Fox [regional sports networks] for NBA and NHL. It gives them what we would call an A-level–game look at a B-level price. The camera may not be quite as good as the very high-end high-speed cameras that we use, but it is good enough, and the Fox people have been thrilled. We own seven of them, but we probably do 14 Fox [RSNs] because they travel them around. It has added a look that they didn’t previously have but that you saw on the Turner and ESPN [national] games. They can go up to 350 frames [per second] and usually run right at 300 [fps].
We have also bought four of the new Grass Valley LDX Universal [4K 6X slo-mo cameras]. We have a couple of the Sony HDC4300s that we’re looking to order and will probably receive in June. So we’re on top of all higher-end technology.
We’ve bought four 16-channel [Evertz] DreamCatcher [replay systems], and I think we have more 16-channel DreamCatchers than anyone in the U.S. as a rental house. We have them in London as well, with the 4K-zoom extraction [application] for Sky Sports. We are doing it for Formula One as well, with a 4K-zoom extraction using an I-Movix [ultra-slo-mo camera] with the DreamCatcher.
Speaking of Europe, I know Fletcher London has made a significant commitment to ncam augmented-reality technology. Can you provide an update on how that has gone over thus far?
Right now, we are the exclusive vendor for ncam in all of Europe, and that’s gone great. We are doing all the big shows with two systems. You don’t need 30 systems to do all the big shows since there might be one show a week. Having two systems gives us a spare for when we might do two shows in a week. The ncams are going nonstop over there right now, and they have been very successful. We are using them all over Europe. It’s not just Sky or one entity; it’s all over. So that is really, I’d say, our driving product in the UK right now. Our high-speed business is still there, but ncam is where our biggest growth has come. 4K for zoom extraction has been a growth item over there as well, with the DreamCatcher and I-Movix Flex4K camera.
Sony and Grass Valley cameras introduced at NAB 2015 have an optional e-license to upgrade from standard HD to high speed or 4K. How do you see this impacting your high-speed– and 4K–rental business long term?
What we’ve found across the board is that the Sony HDC3300 [3X high-speed cameras], and now the HDC4300 [8X high-speed cameras] have been available to every truck vendor. But what we’ve found is, once they get their core 10-20 cameras, they don’t want to add two more just for Monday Night Football since they never get used on that truck package for anything else. They don’t have the ability to migrate the way a rental company does. So we see it as an opportunity because that model is playing out now: you do your main package with the truck, and you augment that with a company like Fletcher. That model is happening right now with NBC and CBS, [for] both of which we have [supplied] LDX cameras [in addition to] their normal truck complement. We see it as another opportunity, and I think Bexel and VER would agree.
As a rental company, it does not pay to be cheap. What that means is, we buy all the [e-licenses] upfront, so it doesn’t matter that they can turn it on or off afterwards. That would be a tremendous headache. We buy it with everything already included. And so the fact that you can do it another way doesn’t affect us. They come fully loaded.