NBA Finals: Though On-Court Story Is Familiar, 2018 Is a Whole New Ballgame for ABC/ESPN Ops Team

Full Court Press, NBA Surround streaming initiatives add new quirks to ESPN’s operation

This year’s NBA Finals may be playing out much like last season’s — with the Warriors way ahead of the Cavs going into Game 4 — ABC/ESPN’s production operations are anything but status quo. In addition to confronting new challenges at the familiar venues – Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA, and Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland – this year, the operations team is also supporting ESPN’s NBA Surround and Full Court Press streaming/second-screen initiatives for the first time at the Finals.

“In many ways, we need to start from scratch,” explains ESPN Operations Manager Patty Mattero, “Regardless of being in the same arenas, TV-compound space allowances have changed this year, along with the many arena conflicts that factor into the load-in timelines. Also, because of the complexity of TV-compound builds — cable bridges and large logistical parking — this needs to be started days before actual TV trucks park.”

Further complicating matters was the fact that both the Eastern and the Western Conference Finals went seven games this year, requiring the ESPN ops team to plan out compound builds in four cities. In addition, ESPN had to stage mobile units at halfway points between two cities until after both Game 7s to ensure that they could be in place the next day for Game 1 of the Finals.

New Initiatives Mean New Challenges
This year, ESPN is producing its second-screen studio-based coverage, Full Court Press, at the Finals, via ESPN3 on the ESPN App, for the first time. The second-screen experience features a variety of ESPN NBA commentators and special guests and an array of on-screen stats, data, and graphics in multi-box format, allowing fans to watch the action on the court while also watching the studio show.

Talent and studio locations have varied for each game, with host/reporter Cassidy Hubbarth joined by ESPN NAB personalities Alvin Gentry, Richard Jefferson, and Caron Butler for Game 1 and Tom Thibodeau, Jefferson, and Butler for Game 2. Dan Le Batard led Game 3’s Full Court Press coverage from The Dan Le Batard Show Studio in Miami.

ESPN is also supplying its NBA Surround initiative, which includes pregame and in-game second-screen streaming offerings for every game and special postgame NBA at the Mic shows featuring press conferences on ESPN2 or ESPNEWS. In addition, as part of NBA Surround, ESPN3 on the ESPN App is carrying pregame warmups and layup lines for both NBA Finals teams (from the Above the Rim robotic camera), starting 45 minutes before each game. The ESPN App is also live-streaming an isolated camera feed displaying the game, with natural sound, throughout the series.

“Our overall plan is very similar to last year for game coverage, and we continue to support new multiple platforms this year,” says Mattero. “We continue to support E3 Layup Lines – which [uses the] Above the Rim camera coverage 45 minutes prior to tip. Additionally, we are doing E3 Full Court Press that gives the fan a different viewing experience. Full Court Press is produced at different studio locations on every NBA Finals Game, [including ESPN’s] Bristol studio and Washington, DC, studio. The show consists of one exclusive camera for iso coverage of several game-camera feeds to enhance a unique, alternative perspective on NBA Finals.”

In addition, ESPN continues to work with the league’s stats/data provider, Second Spectrum, on creating a workflow to provide additional analytic tools for talent and announcers.

40-Camera Complement Headlined by SkyCam, 4K Cams
ESPN’s NBA Finals game productions feature 39 cameras (plus a blimp for aerial shots), including 17 slo-mo cameras operating at 3X, 4X, and 6X speeds. New cameras for this year’s coverage include a SkyCam system on all games at both Golden State and Cleveland and an additional RF handheld camera for every game. ESPN’s main game camera is also shooting 4K to allow ESPN and the NBA to archive footage in 4K for the first time.

Says Mattero, “We have increased our super-slo-mos, replacing truck cameras at tight iso and both low slash positions to enhance the look of game coverage.”

On the Set and in the Compound
Onsite studio coverage at the Finals is similar to last year’s with NBA Countdown on hand at both arenas and First Take at selected offsite locations in both cities. SportsCenter also has a set location in each city for live pregame-show coverage.

In Oakland, Game Creek Video supplied its 79 (A and B units) and Spirit (A and B) trucks for the game production, and its Discovery is handling the studio show. In Cleveland, NEP’s EN1 (A, B, C, and D) is serving as home to the game production, while EN3 (A and B) handles the studio show.

ESPN continues to rely completely on file transfer for all content exchange between both remote sites and its main production facility in Bristol, CT, as well as with facilities in Secaucus, NJ; Atlanta; New York City; Washington; and Los Angeles. For the third straight year, Creative Mobile Solutions (CMSI) is facilitating that entire workflow, managing the transfer of all highlights created during the game and giving ESPN editors instant access to the content, regardless of their location. Throughout the Finals, CMSI has two engineers onsite in both Cleveland and Oakland to ensure that the operation runs as expected.

International Flavor: ESPN International Onsite and Live USO Shot From Kuwait
ESPN International continues its coverage on remote at all NBA Finals games with ESPN Deportes and Brazil each deploying full commentary coverage, including pregame/halftime/postgame hits. ESPN Australia is also producing a new postgame show, Ball or Nothing, taping segments to send to Bristol for a postproduction package. And ESPN Tencent also continues its NBA coverage with full commentary, including pregame/postgame live interviews and postgame recap.

In addition, tonight for Game 4 in Cleveland, ESPN is also coordinating a live cut-in with the USO Center in Kuwait.

Karen Hogan Ketchum contributed to this article.

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