NFL Pro Bowl: Skills Showdown, Orlando Locale Add New Twists to ESPN’s Coverage

At the game, QBs and coaches will be miked; drones will cover the skills competition

The NFL Pro Bowl returns to the mainland this Sunday, as the league’s all-star showcase shifts from Honolulu to Orlando and returns to the traditional AFC-vs.-NFC format after a three-year experiment with the “Fantasy Draft” style. For ESPN, the relocation to Orlando’s Camping World Stadium means that the network will have its full arsenal of Monday Night Football production resources at its disposal.


“Being in Orlando helps significantly [compared with Honolulu],” says Steve Carter, senior operations manager, ESPN. “We are able to use our normal Monday Night Football production units. They are ready to go — just as they were when we last used them, at the Wild Card game earlier this month. When the game is in Hawaii, we have to ship everything and start from scratch. Also, there’s far less travel for our crew, and shipping is also easier. This is similar to a regular MNF week.”

Of course, this year’s Pro Bowl is about much more than just Sunday’s game. The league has expanded the Pro Bowl to include a full week of festivities, including the first-ever Pro Bowl Skills Showdown at the ESPN Wide World of Sports (WWoS) complex on Thursday. In addition to the Skills Showdown and Pro Bowl, other ESPN programming — SportsCenter, NFL Live, Mike & Mike — is airing live from the Walt Disney World Resort Thursday and Friday.

Among the highlights of ESPN’s coverage will be mics on all six quarterbacks and both teams’ play-callers for the Pro Bowl and a pair of drones covering the Skills Showcase.

Skills Showdown Is Meant To Entertain
The first-ever Skills Showdown, which was produced on Wednesday live-to-tape and aired on Thursday night, was part training camp, part reality show. Players ran through a series of events — Epic Pro Bowl Dodgeball; the Power Relay Challenge timed relay race; Precision Passing, featuring QBs trying to hit moving targets; Best Hands, with QB-WR duos connecting on as many pass attempts as possible before time runs out; and Drone Drop, featuring receivers attempting to catch balls dropped from a drone overhead — while fans in the stands cheered them on.

The telecast was produced from the WWoS Production Center rather than a mobile unit onsite (although the full MNF production and technical teams were onsite) with final edit completed on three Avid edit stations at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT. ESPN also uses the WWoS Production Center for Jon Gruden’s QB Camp, in which the MNF analyst works with NFL Draft prospects in the film room and on the field at the facility.

The production’s camera complement included two Chapman carts and a jib cart, as well as four Marshal POV cameras to provide unique angles for each event. For the Drone Drop competition, two drone cameras were deployed, with one dedicated to the TV broadcast.

ESPN Rolls Out MNF Resources for Game
As for ESPN’s 13th Pro Bowl telecast, the network will use NEP’s quartet of EN1 mobile units, which serves as the home to MNF throughout the season. A crew of roughly 175 will be on hand for the game production and Postseason NFL Countdown pregame studio show.

ESPN will deploy 21 total cameras for the game, including Skycam, but will not feature MNF staples like pylon or high-speed cameras. The RefCam, which the broadcaster experimented with at last year’s Pro Bowl, will also not return.

NFL Countdown pregame show will air from the stadium (6-7:50 p.m. ET) with Chris Berman and a team of analysts. Berman will host halftime from the field. The postgame show will be handled in Bristol.

ESPN’s coverage on Sunday begins at 6 p.m. with a special Postseason NFL Countdown live from Camping World Stadium before the Pro Bowl kicks off at 7:50 p.m.

Pulling Sound in From Everywhere
Plans for the Skills Showdown and the Pro Bowl call for audio every bit as good as for a regular-season outing and then some.

Prior to the Skills Showdown, A1 Scott Pray noted that the audio from the event would be as up-close and personal as possible, given that the league wasn’t permitting players to be miked. “We’ll be using a combination of four parabs and eight [Sennheiser] MKE-2 lavalieres,” he said. The lav mics were attached, using Velcro strips, to the obstacles that made the relay races and the passing events challenging. The other two events relied on the Big Ears parabs, loaded with Sony ECM 77 mic elements.

“The challenge is getting those lavs off one set of obstacles and on to the next,” he said. “We’ve got to be fast; the show isn’t going to wait for us.”

The crowd bed sound for the Skills show was captured by six Sennheiser MKH 8060 shotguns arranged in stereo pairs; an additional pair will be deployed for the Pro Bowl. In addition, CP Communications provided 18 wireless RF mics for the Skills Showdown.

The Skills Showdown was broadcast in stereo; the Pro Bowl will be done in 5.1 surround.

Pray mixed the Skills Showdown from one of the WWoS control rooms, using a Studer Vista 10 console. He mixed the show himself but, for the Pro Bowl, will be joined by regular teammate Jonathan Freed as submixer, working from EN1.

At the Pro Bowl, six quarterbacks, three from each team, will be wearing lavaliere mics, with signals coming from the league’s own mixer in the stadium. Additional sound will come from mics worn by both teams play-callers — Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid (AFC head coach) and Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan (NFC offensive coordinator) — from a tap off the stadium’s coach-communications feed. ESPN will also have its own mics on both Reid and Linehan in the form of RF IFBs, allowing them to be heard and to talk with ESPN’s announce team: Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Jon Gruden (analyst), and Lisa Salters (sideline reporter).

“We expect that’ll be like a routine NFL game,” said Pray, “only on steroids.”

In addition to the Pro Bowl and Skills Showcase, ESPN is highlighting other Pro Bowl week events, including the Special Olympics Unified Sports flag football game, NFL Play 60 clinics, youth NFL Flag Championships, and USA Football North American Championship.

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