Live From Women’s World Cup: Fox Sports Goes Big
The day Fox Sports captured the rights to FIFA’s World Cup events, it was pretty clear that the network was committed to making a big splash for coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015. And that is exactly what it has done in Vancouver, with a media headquarters featuring a massive and stunning 5,400-sq.-ft. set and an operations area that measures another 7,500 sq. ft.
Construction of the set at Jack Poole Plaza (directly behind the Olympic flame) began the week of May 13, and, by the time, it was completed, Fox Sports had a broadcast home that not only gave the production team and talent plenty of room but also offered a dramatic backdrop of Vancouver Harbour and the mountains from one side and an equally dramatic view of the Olympic flame and downtown Vancouver from the other.
“I knew it would be big when I was looking at the renderings and saw that the roof was above the lights that adorn the plaza,” says Kevin Callahan, director of technical operations, Fox Sports. “We had a time-lapse camera that showed the set being constructed, but you can’t appreciate the size of this until you get here and see it in person.”
The overall footprint of the studio is 84 x 44 ft. Its two studio sets are located on each of two levels. Technical highlights include two 84-in. touchscreen monitors; 12 cameras, including a Super Techno 50-ft. crane-cam that can retract at 7 ft. per second; a drone capturing aerial shots in and around the set; a 21- x 11-ft. LED screen; a three-sided ticker; and a soccer demonstration field.
Because the set is open on both the front and back, it provides a degree of flexibility, in terms of different looks and options for shooting, that has never been seen before.
“Upstairs, there are two shooting locations, with one to the water, and, downstairs, two locations into the water and city, so you have two looks,” says Callahan. “Plus, there is a daytime and nighttime look and the soccer pitch out front for demonstrations so we can differentiate the shows.”
The set was designed by Gary Hartley, creative director, Fox Sports, and Jeff Hull, principle, JHD Group, the team behind the Times Square studio in New York City for Super Bowl XLVIII.
“Both of the studios mimic their surroundings,” notes Callahan, “The one in Times Square looked like a building that would belong there; this one is sympathetic in design to the convention center next door.”
Big Set, Big Presence
Every great studio set also needs a great technical facility and team to keep it looking great both on and off air. More than 150 people are involved with the production work, and the set at Jack Poole Plaza is connected to a 7,500-sq.-ft. facility inside the Vancouver Convention Centre, mere steps from the Plaza.
The convention center was home to the 2010 Winter Olympics International Broadcast Center, so it is no stranger to having broadcasters within its walls. But only Fox is calling it home for this event; the World Cup IBC is located next to BC Place Stadium, a little less than 2 km from the Plaza.
The Fox production facility space features floor-to-ceiling glass walls looking out over the harbor and also was a completely open space because it hadn’t been used since the Olympics.
“When we moved in on May 1, it had completely bare walls and was just an empty shell,” says Callahan. “Construction began on May 4, and it was handed over to us on May 21 with VER bringing in equipment on May 22.”
The facilities onsite include production offices; a central equipment room with EVS servers and an Nvision router; an audio-playback–control room based on a Calrec audio console; video control to shade the Sony cameras up on the set; a room for rules analyst Dr. Joe Machnik complete with a remotely controlled Sony ENG camera; and a 500-sq.-ft. master-control room.
“We started with a blank canvas,” Callahan notes.“The production team wanted three rows for five people each, and it worked out well. Everyone fits comfortably, and we have had as many as 27 people in the control room.”
One challenge in the construction was that, because of fire codes, no temporary ceilings could be installed above the temporary walls because they would be below the fire sprinklers. As a result, piping and drapes were installed to minimize natural light and reduce noise. Also, the facility is operating completely off an uninterruptible 375-kVA power supply from CAT.
The CAT generator is the only part of the Fox Sports production plan at Jack Poole Plaza that involved wheels.
“It didn’t make sense to operate out of a truck financially,” says Callahan, adding, “More important, there wasn’t a place where we could put a truck.”
VER is providing the technical equipment for the production areas as well as the LED wall and tickers on the set. A Green Hippo media server maps images from the control room out to the LED screen and tickers.
“It can take multiple images and map them across the screen properly,” says Callahan. “It’s the best system out there right now.”
Vizrt graphics gear also has a large presence, being used for lower-third graphics, the two touchscreens, the LED screen and ticker, virtual camera shots, a Libero analysis system, and the Fox Box.
The Jack Poole production facility also handles video captured via AVS wireless RF cameras, which can move around town.
“What AVS has done has far surpassed what we requested,” says Callahan. “In the specification, we wanted to shoot anywhere along the sea wall and then out to the sea planes, but, the other day, they had a shot from 10 blocks away, which was mind-blowing.”
Beyond Jack Poole Plaza
One thing that is not onsite is a large editing presence. With the exception of an edit bay for social media, all edit personnel are working out of Los Angeles. “To make that happen,” says Callahan, “we added in an asset-management system and pulled back on the EVS IPDirector resources.”
In Los Angeles, a conference room was converted into a temporary edit facility with eight edit suites.
As for signal handling, all video and data signals from Jack Poole pass through the Fox facility at the BC Place IBC. There are 15 uncompressed HD-SDI video lines and a total of 16 GB in data circuits (one 10-GB circuit and six 1-GB circuits) connecting Jack Poole Plaza operations to the IBC operations at BC Place. Connectivity to Los Angeles is via 2-GB diverse circuits from Level 3 and Bell along with five video transmission lines from Level 3.
“We are also sharing a 10-channel return mux with the U.S. Open golf project [at Chambers Bay in University Place, WA], as we both need to see FS1, FS2, and network feeds all the time,” he says. “So, instead of tying up three transmit lines and six encoders in Los Angeles, we will share the 10-channel mux.”
All match-coverage feeds go directly to the Fox facility at the IBC and then are fed to the Jack Poole production area for highlights and viewing. That is when the media-management workflow kicks in, and clips are built for quick turnaround on EVS servers and ingest into the Pronology asset-management system.
“It allows the folks in Los Angeles to have visibility into the system and also get clips from the FIFA MAX server into the asset-management system,” says Callahan.
The FIFA MAX server — which offers clips from every match, press conferences, team arrivals, practices, and more — is an example of how Fox Sports isn’t the only one stepping up big for coverage. FIFA TV and its production-services provider, HBS, have greatly enhanced the level of production support for rightsholders.
“Something new for the Women’s World Cup is the additional content channel and also having ENG crews in each city. That is six ENG crews getting footage we wouldn’t usually get,” Callahan points out. “Plus, their ENG crew would get much better access to, say, the German team than we ever would.”
He also says FIFA has stepped up from the audio side, notably 5.1 surround sound, which is important for Fox Sports.
“FIFA and HBS have done a very good job of providing the things we need, they have constant quality control on all of their lines, and they are a great partner to work with,” Callahan says. “And the feed they provide us of match coverage is excellent.”
The high level of support from FIFA TV means that the Fox crew at matches comprises only talent, a technical manager, an A2, and the locally hired camera operators and utilities. Fox Sports will call 10 matches off tube but has announcers at all venues and a sideline reporter at 30 matches, something new for a World Cup event. All the microphones are sent back as isolated feeds to the IBC and then mixed with the international sound.
Callahan also credits Dome Productions and Encompass with providing a lot of help with respect to encoding signals for delivery to the IBC and Jack Poole Plaza.
At the IBC, Fox has three 12- x 60-ft. cabins that have been put together. The space allows for two master-control rooms, each with separate audio board, and an off-tube room. Production control and the Fox Box system are also housed in that facility.
“The interesting thing for us,” says Callahan,“has been marrying up the studio show to the world feed.”
The World Cup shifts into a new phase after June 16, when the Group Stage comes to an end. At that point, about 50% of the matches will remain to be played, and the pace slows down a bit. Of course, the intensity of the play will increase, as will, hopefully, viewer interest. The final match is set for July 5, and, within a week of that, the Fox presence at Jack Poole Plaza will be a thing of the past. And, although the FIFA Men’s World Cup 2018 may seem years away, the work begins anew.
“We are on a plane on July 18 to Russia for the preliminary draw and the World Broadcaster meeting,” says Callahan. “So it is from one event to the next.”