The Beginning of an Era for US Open Tennis
ESPN enhances coverage, prepares to take over as host broadcaster
The US Open tennis tournament starts in 10 days, and this year marks the first time ESPN will have exclusive coverage of the event in the U.S. as it takes over all broadcast windows from CBS Sports. It also marks the first time ESPN will serve as host broadcaster, producing the feeds that will be the backbone of broadcast coverage around the globe.
ESPN has enlisted Gearhouse Broadcast, well known in tennis circles for its work on the Australian Open on behalf of Tennis Australia, to build out the massive technical facilities that will be at the center of TV coverage.
“It’s everything from laying cable to finding new camera positions to working with the existing infrastructure onsite to trying to do right by the sport, doing everything we can in our first foray into doing this event, and also recognizing [that] this entire venue will [have gone] through another facelift when we come back in a year,” says Jamie Reynolds, VP, production, ESPN. “It’s making all of those decisions, making smart investments on capital improvements to the venue, buying the right technology, dressing it up so the event looks magical and we capture all of the access points and the players, the excitement that this event offers, and then be ready to tear it down and get out of the way so the venue can continue its facelift.”
ESPN is all-in on the US Open, looking to maximize its return on a rights deal that extends through 2026. During the first week of the tournament, the television coverage will start on ESPN at 1 p.m. ET each weekday and will continue nonstop — transitioning to ESPN2 (except on Tuesday) — for at least 10 hours through both the day and the Primetime at the US Open Presented by IBM sessions from 7 p.m. until play is concluded. Then, new day-long coverage over Labor Day Weekend will be found in one place, ESPN2, starting at 11 a.m. all three days. And, beginning with the quarterfinals Tuesday Sept. 8, all the TV coverage will be on ESPN (except Wednesday evening).
And then there is ESPN3. Play will begin each day on the online streaming service at 10:45 a.m. through Wednesday Sept. 9 and at noon the final four days — totaling 1,100 hours of action from as many as 11 courts simultaneously, including Mixed, Women’s, and Men’s Doubles championship matches. For the semifinals and the singles championships, a separate ESPN3 Surround feed will offer three perspectives: the traditional TV angle plus a camera focused on each player.
“The US Open is a wonderful kind of short story that takes place over two weeks,” explains Scott Guglielmino, SVP, programming, ESPN. “In the current media landscape with all of the different platforms that consumers take in content, our ability to tell that story — from the draw, from first ball all the way through final ball, to be able to do it from a live perspective across our platforms, to be able to do it within shows like SportsCenter, PTI and sites like ESPN.com, [and] our apps — allows us to get into a rhythm and cadence of the tournament and also to be able to tell the various stories.”
Host With the Most
ESPN’s team heads into the host role with a lot of experience in knowing what a client will want. Over the years, it has worked closely with all the major host broadcasters: Channel 7 and Tennis Australia in Melbourne, the BBC at Wimbledon, CBS at the US Open. This year, the ESPN team is making the leap to providing production services for the host feeds while U.S. Optimum manages the needs of international rightsholders.
“Being host broadcaster is a steep learning curve,” says Reynolds, adding, “We are also bringing a different mindset to the event, as, in the past, it was a mobile-unit show, but we are making it more international with flypacks and building out control rooms to have a sophisticated hub.
“We built this chassis,” he continues. “We built this really powerful engine for future growth to ultimately deliver all court coverage down the road at some point. So we know that the infrastructure and venue can accommodate that. Now the [issue] is, from a stylistic standpoint, looking to enrich and improve the coverage. That’s our biggest goal now: whether or not we can put the right people, the right directors, producers in the right position to help amplify and deliver a more robust package.”
Bells and Whistles
Tennis fans will find some new bells and whistles that either bring completely new technologies to the event or expand the use of older ones.
“In our commitment to the US Open,” Reynolds explains, “we wanted to take all of these assets and strong pieces of technology that have been at other majors and bring them under one roof.”
Enriching the coverage means leveraging existing tools and bringing in some new ones. For example, Spidercam, used by ESPN since 2010, will be deployed for all coverage from Arthur Ashe Stadium. And the Rail Cam system will return to Ashe but with an improved coverage angle. The freeD system, in its tennis-major debut, will allow ESPN to freeze the action and spin viewers around the play, thanks to the use of multiple synced cameras at the top of the stadium.
“We aim to present a US Open like never before, with camera and replay angles to cover every inch of the action on Ashe, supplementing and enhancing the analysis and storytelling from our roster of tennis voices,” says Reynolds. “As fans get invested in the great drama, athletes, and personalities, we will reward them with a fresh and dynamic presentation to capture every nuance and moment on this grand stage, the largest in the sport.”
Getting the new technologies in place took the cooperation of the USTA. The improved Rail Cam location, for example, required a false wall to be built at the south end of the court so that the camera track and camera head can fit behind it. It is particularly useful in studying a player’s footwork and seeing the action from his or her point of view. The system is used for both live coverage and replay, with the robotic camera operated by a technician stationed outside the court.
Spidercam, which debuted at the US Open in 2010 and is exclusive to ESPN for five years, will be used every day of the tournament for the first time and also will be part of the host-feed coverage from Arthur Ashe Stadium. It is used in replays as well as for live shots, including on-court interviews and closeups during warm-ups and going in and out of commercials.
Previously, use of the camera system required a bit of a dance, because its images were not part of the world feed and every effort was made to make sure the unit itself was never visible in the host feed. But that changes this year: Spidercam will make its debut in world-feed coverage.
“That angle has been so endemic to coverage at the majors that all the clients expect that level of delivery and sophistication,” says Reynolds.
ESPN saw the freeD system in action at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, CA. It will be exclusive to ESPN at the US Open.
“FreeD is not a new technology as it has been used at Indian Wells for the past two years, but the capital improvement here allows us to put the cameras in fixed positions and run the fiber once and know that it will be part of the texture of the event year after year,” says Reynolds. “We are not sure if freeD, which is a joint investment between the USTA and ESPN, will stay unique to ESPN on the domestic side or, in coming years, be shared [in the host feed] to amplify and consolidate all the technology to make the sport stronger.”