ESPN’s Wimbledon Efforts Deliver for Fans
Weather, a topsy-turvy schedule, and lots of high-grade tennis keep the production team on their toes
The Wimbledon tennis championships come to an end this weekend, and the 2016 edition has been marked by endings, beginnings, plenty of tennis, plenty of interesting storylines, and a historic middle Sunday of tennis (only the fourth one ever).
Jamie Reynolds, VP, event production, ESPN, was once again at the helm of an ESPN effort that saw the team battle the elements, juggle schedules, and take advantage of some new technical improvements. For example, this is the first year that televised coverage is available from every court, thanks to expanded use of the Sony Hawk-Eye automated production system.
“Early on,” he says, “we dipped into the host broadcast on a couple of matches, and, while it’s had more of an impact on the digital side of our operations than the linear TV side, it helps us.”
One of the biggest changes is that having the host feed provide coverage of all courts frees production resources to be used to add more color to the coverage instead of having to be deployed on a smaller court.
“We could take our camera with the Dejero bonded-cellular [transmission system] and deploy it around the grounds,” Reynolds notes. “So we’re happy with the level of coverage we could give to the character and details around the venue and beauty shots around town.”
Rain not only turned the event’s first week upside down but also created a jam-packed July 4th weekend of coverage for tennis fans in the U.S. For only the fourth time in the history of the tournament, tennis was played on the middle Sunday of the event to ensure that the tournament schedule was back on track by the second Monday. Undertaking that effort was not easy for anyone involved with the tournament, because everything from security to restaurants to merchandising and, of course, the broadcast operations had to come together quickly.
“We looked at the programming grid and already had a Fourth of July that was saturated with coverage and 18 hours of coverage on ESPN and ESPN2,” says Reynolds. “But the opportunity to have a live window on Sunday as well as a three-hour special on ABC gave us a special presence and a full weekend of tennis from Wimbledon.”
He points out that the first Sunday is usually a day when the production team decompresses and gets ready for the doubleheader on Monday.
“We have a small crew in to do the wraps and package the ABC show on that Sunday,” says Reynolds. “So we added a couple of hours to their schedule, brought in one of the regular control-room crews in full, and then rotated in relief shifts during the day. It was a measured approach.”
Among other additions to the mix this year is a new set behind Henman Hill, which was a joint project with the BBC and offers a look with Court One in the background. Reynolds likens it to the set at the practice courts at the USTA Tennis Center in bringing viewers and talent closer to the venue in a new and exciting way.
Another addition to the Wimbledon broadcast infrastructure is NEP Group’s new Pacific remote-production unit, making its Wimbledon debut and delivering Centre Court host coverage. Twenty Sony HDC-4300 4K cameras operating in HD mode are on hand for coverage, along with five EVS XT3 servers for replay operations, a SAM Kahuna 9600 6M/E 1080p/4K production switcher, a Calrec Apollo console, and more.
“You can see that [NEP Group Commercial Director] Brian Clark is in a great space right now,” says Reynolds of the new truck. “You can tell that the host-broadcast side of the operation has smiles on all the faces, so, technically, there is a very solid and robust setup.”
This year’s tournament also marks an end. It’s the last for Mervyn Hall, head of broadcast, AELTC, who has led Wimbledon broadcast efforts since 2002. He will be replaced by Paul Davies, who has been lead executive producer, BBC Sport.
“Mervyn knows how to manage and support all of the clients that take advantage of this event,” says Reynolds. “He always would come in with a smile even when making sure that we adhere to the rules of the club and that broadcasters play by the rules. It’s been a tremendous relationship,” he adds. “He’s a good guy, a good soul, and sensible when helping us capture more of the event while honoring the traditions of the club.”
Davies, no stranger to the event or to ESPN, used to oversee BBC operations at Wimbledon.
“We have a great relationship,” says Reynolds. “He is a great fit because, when running the BBC side, he was trying to be as progressive as possible. So we head into the next chapter with someone who can push the club along the correct curve [to meet the demands of viewers and rightsholders].”
The ESPN team won’t leave the Wimbledon grounds for a couple of days, but it already sees the building blocks that will expand the facilities over the next couple of years. A roof, for example, is expected to be installed over Court One by 2018 (possibly, by next year), adding another level of protection from the elements.
“That changes our ability to rely on having constant coverage, and we can make technical improvements to both Centre Court and Court One, so having both courts covered is a win,” says Reynolds. “We can also deploy specialty cameras and accent elements that reshape our traditional approach to coverage.”
Up next for the ESPN tennis-production team will be the US Open Summer Series of events and, of course, the US Open tennis championships in late August.
“The Summer Series starts a week earlier [than usual],” Reynolds notes, adding, “We get a 10-day break during the Rio Olympics that will help us in handling the Summer Series and getting out to the USTA Tennis Center. So that plays to our strength.”
The big change at the US Open will be the new roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium and the addition of a fifth court of coverage using the Sony Hawk-Eye system.
“The celebration of that is the focus this year,” says Reynolds. “There are still some unknowns with shadowing, the noise inside, or what the air-conditioning system will sound like and how it might affect the experience. But, during the Rio break, we will be able to go through a lot of assessment and see what the roof does to reshape coverage.”