ESPN Launches New Era at US Open With ‘Expandable and Flexible’ Approach
It’s a new era at the US Open this year. ESPN has taken over as host broadcaster and sole domestic-rights holder at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The broadcast compound, traditionally a carnival of interconnected trucks and trailers serving a variety of broadcasters, is now the embodiment of organization, thanks to ESPN’s newly built two-story production facility and the streamlined office trailer across the street.
The spick-and-span appearance is no accident. ESPN was intent on building a regimented, flexible, and scalable operation as it embarks on its 11-year rights deal with the USTA, taking over as host broadcaster from CBS Sports and carrying every single point of the tournament on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN3.
“As soon as we got the rights deal, we, collectively as a group, started thinking about the best way to do it, and we thought this was the proper way to go, mostly because it’s expandable and flexible,” says ESPN Director of Remote Operations Terry Brady. “You will hear this mantra from us a lot: expandable and flexible. Instead of connecting multiple mobile units, we centralized the entire operation under one roof. We looked at it as a great opportunity for ESPN to step forward in this realm.”
ESPN is covering seven linear-TV courts with traditional manned cameras and audio. Four other courts have Hawkeye SMART coverage with automated cameras following the action. More than 250 technicians, 32 engineers, and more than a dozen operations staffers are on hand for ESPN’s host, domestic, and international operations — with a whopping 650-plus total ESPN credentials issued.
The Look and Power of an IBC
ESPN’s facilities at the Open — comprising a 13,500-sq-ft. two-story broadcast center and 3,500-sq.-foot administration building — resemble that of an Olympics or FIFA World Cup International Broadcast Center. ESPN tapped Gearhouse Broadcast, which played a key role in its Australian Open buildout, to serve as the primary systems integrator. Only ESPN Interactive TV, which produces the six-screen multimatch mosaic experience for ESPN3 and DirecTV during the tournament’s opening week, is operating out of a truck this year.
“Efficiency was another thing we were trying to gain, being that we had a blank slate to start with,” says ESPN Senior Operations Specialist Chris Strong, who spearheaded the facility design. “It’s a modular building that was purpose-built to do exactly what we wanted to do. Everything from the holes in the floor for cabling to the outlets in the wall for utility power has a purpose. That was the most fun part of the project: designing the physical space around the broadcast. It was really about maximization, rather than trying to put broadcast equipment in limited space.”
The broadcast center features nine production-control rooms (seven host, one ESPN domestic, and one ESPN International) on the second floor. All EVS replay equipment (27 six-channel XT3 systems and five additional servers), video, ingest, media management, comms, transmission, and social-media operations are located on the first floor. Also on the first floor is the highly regimented Central Apparatus Room, which houses the racks and technical infrastructure with all CCUs, replay systems, routers, audio, graphics, etc., in separate areas.
“I would say this is at least one of the top installations that we’ve ever done as a company,” says Brady. “I think we’ve done a very solid job, but we’ve learned a lot of lessons the first year out from a technical and an operational level and certainly can improve moving forward.”
RailCam, freeD Top Camera Complement
In all, ESPN has deployed 93 cameras to serve the host, domestic, and iTV productions, as well as 16 robotic cameras for its four automated Hawkeye SMART production courts (four per court). ESPN has also deployed a 150-ft.-high HoistCam to capture epic beauty shots of the Tennis Center grounds, as well as four wireless RF cameras and two cranes.
“We tried to add a few things into the host and domestic coverage that would give it a little flair, a little sexiness,” says Brady. “I think we accomplished that, but we’re also going to save some of the tricks for the next couple years.”
As always, Arthur Ashe Stadium has quite the camera arsenal: 22 cameras, including a RailCam system running behind the south-end baseline and the return of the Spidercam four-point aerial camera system.
In addition to the primary camera complement, Replay Technologies’ freeD system is making its tennis-major debut after being deployed at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, CA, in March. The system — which has previously been deployed at AT&T Stadium (Dallas Cowboys), Yankee Stadium (New York Yankees), and now M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore Ravens) — encircles Arthur Ashe Stadium with 28 5K cameras to create 360-degree-style replays. Each camera’s 2D image is processed through Replay Technologies’ custom algorithm to create the 3D scene. The operator can pinpoint any voxel on the court to rotate the perspective within the replay package.
The RailCam robotic camera system moves silently along the base of the wall behind the south-end baseline and provides a ground-level view of the action. Used for both live and replay coverage, it provides an up-close look at players’ footwork and captures the players’ point of view as the ball flies at them.
“We worked with USTA to create the RailCam, which was tried here before many, many years ago, but it was tried high along the wall,” says Brady. “We put it at waist level so that you see from baseline to baseline to try to give the viewer a different perspective of what a ball looks like coming at you at 100 mph. That’s been pretty fun and exciting.”
New Sets Galore
ESPN has launched two brand-new sets, tapping Filmwerks to design, build, and power all its sets this year.
The network has a total of six announce locations and four sets across the Tennis Center grounds to service its ESPN Domestic, ESPN International, and iTV productions. The primary domestic set is once again located at the Tennis Center fountains; the secondary set has been erected in a new location, at the practice courts.
“All of the sets that you see here are new,” says Strong. “Gone are the back posts, where you can’t cross-shoot talent because there’s a post behind them. You can showcase the fountain and practice course sets with your talent. Everyone is able to cross-shoot without obstructions, and that was a result of working with USTA and Filmwerks to come up with that option.”
Tennis Center, Bristol Linked by Fiber
ESPN is delivering 28 fiber feeds — including domestic, international (Brazil and Argentina), iTV, and ESPN3 — over three diverse paths with satellite backup for week 2. ESPN’s transmission group built a 500-Mpbs dedicated fiber pipe linking the Tennis Center with ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT, to provide the connectivity for signal delivery and file transfer.
“We are always pushing content back and forth,” says Strong. “A lot of our social-media group is shared up to Bristol for video, frame captures, any photography via file transfer. We also send content to SportsCenter and any of the groups that request it. We also can pull content from Bristol if there is something from a historical piece. Instead of bringing all the packages here, we’ll just bring it across the network.”
A True Team Effort
Brady and Strong stress that a project as massive as this must be a group effort. They credit their entire team wits its execution, including Manager, Remote Operations, Joalin Goff; Operations Specialist Sam Olsen; Associate Operations Producer Thuy Huynh; Senior Operations Specialist Steve Raymond; Operations Specialist Alex Milton; Operations Producer DJ Driscoll; Operations Specialist Tom Clark; Operations Specialist Joon Kim; Operations Producer Brock Wetherbee; Operations Specialist Jon Winders; Operations Producer Gerry Wetzel; Operations Producer Traci Flohr; Operations Producer Jenn Angell; and Operations Coordinator Antonio DeMasi.
“Ultimately, the crew is what makes it happen: from the engineers to the runners to operations to production,” says Strong. “Without them, it doesn’t matter how well you plan and the equipment is facilitated, it takes the whole team to do it. As you walk around, I think you can see the morale. Attitude is very uplifting right now, where people are just having a good time. In doing that, I think, they’re producing a better product.”