Live From the US Open: ESPN Adapts to Revamped USTA National Tennis Center
The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is a very different venue from what it was last year. A new 250- x 250-ft. retractable roof atop Arthur Ashe Stadium (the largest in tennis), a brand-new 8,100-seat Grandstand in the southwest corner of the campus, and a wholly revamped South Campus featuring 10 rebuilt field courts constitute a major facelift. With the venue enhancements came challenges and opportunities on the television-production side for ESPN, which is serving as the host broadcaster and sole domestic-rights holder of the US Open for the second consecutive year.
Click here for SVG’s in-depth look at ESPN’s US Open production.
“We stayed in touch [with the USTA] throughout the winter and into the spring regarding the construction and [rethought] everything from camera positions to camera mounts to dropping in a whole lot more a lot more fiber,” says ESPN Director of Remote Operations Terry Brady. “A lot of times, you go into an existing location, and you have a lot of existing spatial and technical constraints, so this gave us an opportunity to actually plan out the space and [technical infrastructure]. That’s going to make the overall viewing experience and ultimate product on the TV much better.”
The Roof Factor
Although much of the buzz about the new roof concerns the constant “hum” inside the stadium when it is closed, ESPN’s greatest challenge came on the RF side. Prior to the roof’s construction, the broadcaster was able to put RF receivers on it to service RF needs both inside and outside Arthur Ashe but was forced to rethink its RF plan going into this year’s tournament.
“From a technical point, the RF is a challenge,” explains ESPN Senior Operations Specialist Chris Strong. “Ultimately, it’s the shutters on the side of the building that we were concerned about because they’re metal. And we’ve had to go higher in some aspects of the catwalk area [for the signal to] reach outside. [RF Coordinator] Dana Underhill and his team and the Gearhouse Broadcast team put an RF plan in place that is working quite well. You don’t know the unknowns until you actually get the doors shut, so we prepared as best we could. Everything has worked well.”
The addition of the roof also affected the Intel 360 freeD replay operation. The Intel team had to reconfigure the complex system for different lighting conditions.
“The roof impacted [Intel] significantly because they now have to mimic multiple different lighting conditions: with the roof open or closed during the day and then the same at night,” says Brady. “Luckily, they had a jump-start on it as opposed to last year, when they came in relatively late to test the system. I think all that preparation is going to translate to a better product on the screen because they had the time to calibrate in multiple different conditions.”
A Larger Version of the Grandstand
The brand-new Grandstand in the southwest corner of the campus features 8,100 seats — slightly more than its predecessor — but retains the original’s charm and appeal. With a new stadium in play, ESPN worked with the USTA on its design to streamline TV-production operations.
“Ultimately, working with USTA to cable multiple new positions gave us a lot more options because they put fiber drops and power all over Grandstand where we were requesting it. It’s made it so much easier,” says Strong. “[For example], there was a locked-off beauty shot that captures Grandstand in the foreground with Arthur Ashe in the background. Now the cable run for that is under 150 ft. because we can go right to a junction box and then bring it back to [the broadcast center]; in the past, you would have to cable halfway around the facility to find a way to get it back to the compound. Now the setup time for that is no time at all, which allows us to continue to focus on the rest of the setup.”
Brady adds, “Going from the old Grandstand to the new Grandstand is like night and day for us. [The old version is] a great court because the crowd is right on top of [the court], and they did a great job of mimicking that at the new Grandstand. The difference is that there’s fiber all over and we’re not crawling under Grandstands to [run the fiber].”
ESPN worked with the USTA to significantly expand the fiber infrastructure throughout the Tennis Center, especially in the South Campus, which was completely gutted and rebuilt.
“Working the USTA on the whole South Campus renovation, we put in a lot more fiber to all the linear-TV courts, as well as the outer smart courts,” says Strong. “So they’re now flexible, with us able to move around and work more efficiently on those courts as we move forward in the future.”