SVG Sit-Down: ESPN’s Jamie Reynolds on Balancing Domestic, Host Duties at US Open
At this year’s US Open tennis tournament, ESPN’s role significantly changed as it took on the task of serving as both the exclusive domestic-rights holder and the host broadcaster for all international distributors. That led the network to completely rethink the production setup at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and take a holistic approach to the entire operation.
SVG caught up with Jamie Reynolds, VP, event production, ESPN, to discuss keeping both the domestic- and host-feed balls in the air, just how much his role has changed, and how certain enhancements to the production have helped make this year’s US Open viewing experience more intimate.
What are some general reflections on this first year as the sole domestic-rights holder and host broadcaster at the US Open?
You have the duality of being host broadcast and also protecting the ESPN brand. So you’ve got two things that could be diametrically opposed. At every other major, we’ve had the ability of going in and sitting on top of Channel 7 Australia, FFT, BBC, CBS, and we added our level of identity on top of that with graphics, music, talent. So the left brain says you’ve got to make sure the foundation of the coverage is locked and loaded and you have to be as robust as possible but you also have to be somewhat agnostic. Then, on the domestic side — the right brain – you really want to customize your storytelling ability. How do those two worlds intersect with each other?
What we did was effectively make the most robust coverage pattern that we had the responsibility to do with the compatibility to take control — in primetime windows — of what was going on in [Arthur] Ashe [Stadium] and stylize the cut to our liking to service the domestic audience and turn the host-broadcast unit into neutralizing that “ESPN element” so the rest of the world still had a pure, clean, smart production. We took that philosophy and spread it across all seven courts, and we could dip in and dip out.
On the domestic side, having that set [on the west end of the practice courts] turned out to be much better than we ever thought. It’s great to have three personalities on that terrace and have Serena [Williams] or [Roger] Federer over their shoulders just casually working on their serve and practicing. You’re embedded in the moment. Think to the other professional sports: where are you ever able to host a show during a practice? Here, we’ve got Andy Murray taking swings and Patrick [Mouratoglou] working with Serena on her serve, and we’re doing a wrap-up of the day. That’s pretty sexy.
To speak about you, how different was your job this year compared with the previous years you have worked the US Open?
You have to think holistically, and that, for me, has been the biggest challenge. Trying to take care of the host family, take care of the domestic family, still put the care and attention on the ESPN production team and the talent roster. Typically, when you have time, energy, and the ability to just work on what the creative identity is versus what the core coverage is, you can add that hands-on approach. But, when you have to think horizontally between what the host is doing, what domestic is doing, and all of the voices that want to contribute, you have to start parsing your time. I wish there were more hours in the day to be as hands-on on the creative side as we enjoy on the other majors. The managerial aspect of making sure everything worked together in harmony has been the most challenging, and most rewarding. We have created this holistic and atmospheric approach to the entire event where I can’t have our domestic directors upset with what host is doing because that’s their co-worker. All of these folks touching the product are now working in harmony. That works really well. So I suppose the biggest learning curve for me is just trying to attend to the details within both sides of that house and having them co-join and continue to try to make the ESPN experience as entertaining, journalistic pure as possible. We want it to be a good watch.
Are there certain technologies or enhancements that you’ve really enjoyed?
I think our biggest challenge is covering the event as an evolution, not a revolution. What I mean by that is, we’ve included all of these elements that can harvest all of that content coming off of Ashe, but how do you weave them together and not try to over-stylize, overcut, or aggressively change the coverage? It’s a subtle enhancement and [requires] finding that balance.
I thought the Hoist cameras — the 150-ft. crane — showed a great new look at the venue. That worked out. I think Spidercam and Railcam, embedded in the host broadcast on Ashe, helped elevate the texture of the coverage because we didn’t use that uniquely on the domestic broadcast; we offered that as a service to the world. We kept freeD unique to domestic because we’re not sure how it’s going to work and whether we continue to nurture that. Maybe, in the outer years [of the agreement], it does become a part of the host broadcast. That’s where the duality between domestic and host broadcaster allows us to experiment, make things more exclusive on ESPN, and that asset may eventually migrate to be a part of the host team.
This is an opportunity, particularly at night, to amplify sports theater. You want that experience. When you look at what the USTA has done with all of their lighting cues at night. It’s kind of heavy, but it’s a very different look at what they are offering as an experience. We are trying to amplify that, so it works. When things line up, the day session going out and the night session crowd of 23,000 people waiting to come in and you are in that experience of every one trying to rush in — as they did for Venus and Serena the other night — that’s kind of cool. We want to give an experience that makes people think, “Man, I wish I were there.” If that translates in the experience of watching it at home, I think we’re on to something.
I’m sure you are taking a bunch of notes and learning a lot, but has there been a key takeaway or two that you are going to keep in your head in the years to come in this agreement?
A lot of what has created a little bit of buzz and traction is how we are trying to push the discovery and access of players. Whether it’s enhancing the onsite experience or even the in-match interviews that we are trying to nurture or getting behind the scenes into the workout facilities or the player garden. It’s about taking viewers behind the velvet rope, to let them have that experience so they feel like part of the entire tournament, not just observers of it.