Live From the US Open: ESPN Operation Is Bigger Than Ever, Has Plenty of New Tech Toys
Aerial system, NetCam, behind-scenes robos top the camera debuts
For ESPN, it simply doesn’t get bigger than US Open tennis. Even with thousands of live events on its annual production calendar, ESPN’s annual pilgrimage to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (NTC) stands out as the largest and most complex.
In ESPN’s fourth year as host broadcaster and sole domestic-rights holder —part of an 11-year rights deal — the technical and operations teams continue to evolve production workflows and add elements. Highlights this year include the debut of a Fletcher Tr-ACE/SimplyLive ViBox automated production system covering the nine outer courts, a CineLine two-point aerial system, the US Open debut of the NetCam, and several new behind-the-scenes robotic positions at the NTC.
“This truly is the largest event that ESPN produces out of the thousands of events that we do all year, and it’s all done in a 3½ week span,” says ESPN Director, Remote Operations, Dennis Cleary. “And the most important thing to remember is that we are not here just for ESPN domestic. Our primary role is as the host broadcaster to serve the USTA and all of their clients, and all of our other productions come off that. That is a huge undertaking for this team, and we think it’s pretty impressive.”
135 Cameras Cover the NTC
ESPN has once again deployed a throng of cameras at the NTC, totaling 135 in all (including nine Fletcher Tr-ACE systems with four robotic cameras each).
New this year is a two-point aerial CineLine system (provided by Picture Factory) running between Armstrong and Court 10, a run of roughly 1,000 ft. The lightweight, RF system is battery-powered, making for easier setup than the two-point systems previously used. The system, which provides bumpers and beauty shots from the South Plaza Fountain area, was set up and live in just over a day.
“There have been two-point systems here before,” notes Steve Raymond, senior remote operations specialist, ESPN. “But we feel that this is the most sophisticated that we’ve had here. As more of these systems are coming to market, we are looking for solutions that are easier to implement. Because this one runs primarily on batteries, it requires very little in terms of infrastructure. With some of the more complex systems, you have to rig fiber and three-phase motors. So, in terms of the time to deploy and ease of deployment, it is significantly easier.”
After a successful debut at Wimbledon in June and the Australian Open in January, Telstra Broadcast Services’ NetCam is getting its US Open debut this week. The Globecam POV miniature camera is deployed on each side of the net at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Louis Armstrong Stadium, and the Grandstand for singles matches. The HD 1080i/50 camera system features full-remote camera control and digital pan/framing adjustment, providing viewers with a close-up look at the action on the court.
“2018 seems to be the year of the NetCam — kicking off in Australia and then Wimbledon and then here at the Open — with advancements along the way,” says ESPN Manager, Remote Operations, Joalin Goff. “It’s really been embraced by [the production team] and integrated heavily into our coverage. In just the first day, we had over a dozen replays and multiple live warmup shots.”
In addition to CineLine and NetCam, Intel’s Tru View 360-degree camera system and the SpiderCam four-point aerial system are both back at Ashe.
ESPN has also added three robotic camera locations to provide more-intimate looks at two newly constructed player warmup areas and the stringer room, where rackets are strung during the tournament.
“In addition to everything that has been expanded on the grounds externally, the USTA has improved the internal player areas,” says Goff. “So we have activated three new robotic cameras to give us a more intimate look at those areas. The warmup areas give us great behind-the-scenes shots of the players. In the stringer room, if a racket comes off the court to be restrung, we typically have used a handheld to cover that. Now we have a robo back there, so we have the ability to go to that shot at any moment.”
Camera Positions In New Armstrong Stadium Evolve
The debut of the brand-new Louis Armstrong Stadium this week is the culmination of more than two years of planning and construction, a process throughout which ESPN worked closely with the USTA.
“[Our technical team] has worked with the USTA group to make sure that the appropriate amount of fiber connectivity and power exists in Armstrong, not only from our typical camera locations but also with an eye on expanding the coverage,” says Goff. “[During construction], you have the maps, but you don’t know what the site is truly going to look like until you get closer to the event. Now seeing it in action gives us the chance to adjust as necessary based on structural positioning.”
However, a venue is never truly finished. In response to TV-viewer feedback, ESPN worked with the USTA to lower the Camera 1 position from its original location to a lower one overnight on Tuesday. The USTA removed the seats overnight, and ESPN came in at 7:30 a.m. to move the camera. ESPN also mounted a Fletcher robotic camera under the new position to allow an alternative shot. The robotic position provides a better view of the court and is being used as the new Camera 1 position (the USTA reinstalled the removed seats after Thursday night’s matches).
ESPN also has a new standup position at Armstrong on the south-side terrace area, which it is using to service all of its on-site live studio shows, including SportsCenter and ESPN International. This has created more flexibility for ESPN to utilize its other two set locations in the South Plaza fountain area and at the practice courts.
“We have the capability to do a standup at anytime now – as we have had in the past at Wimbledon and Australia,” says Goff. “That allows us to have our other two sets to remain in use in order to provide coverage for somebody else.”
New Automation Enables Live Coverage From All Courts
For the first time, ESPN is covering all 16 courts, thanks to a new automated production system deployed on the nine outer courts.
Having debuted at Wimbledon in June, Fletcher’s Tr-ACE motion-detecting robotic camera system places four robos on each outer court and relies on SimplyLive’s ViBox for switching and replay and an SMT automated graphics system. With it, one robotic camera operator and one ViBox director/producer is covering the nine courts.
CLICK HERE for an in-depth look at the Tr-ACE/ViBox automation system at the Open.
NTC Broadcast Center Continues To Evolve
The US Open production compound is almost unrecognizable from five years ago, prior to ESPN’s taking over as host broadcaster.
What was previously a caravan of production trucks is now two permanent structures housing ESPN’s NTC broadcast center and production/operations offices, plus two ultra-organized stacks of temporary work pods housing the TOC, vendors, international broadcasters, and ESPN’s automated production operation for the outer courts. NEP’s NCP8 is on hand for ESPN’s ITV operation (serving AT&T/DirecTV’s US Open Mix Channel), and NEP’s Chromium and Nickel are home to the USTA’s world-feed production.
“This is my eighth year here. We started out with seven broadcast courts and then went to 12 courts, and now we have expanded to all 16 courts,” says Goff. “And yet we still do it all in the same timeframe that we did the seven courts. I think that’s pretty impressive. The team that we have and how well we collaborate make that happen.”
ESPN is tied to its Bristol, CT, headquarters via two diverse 1-GBps fiber circuits, which handle a whopping 37 outbound transmission paths and five inbound, as well as file exchange with Bristol.
The two-floor broadcast center, developed in conjunction with Gearhouse Broadcast, is largely the same as in the past three years. The lower level houses the Central Apparatus Room (CAR) with racks and all technical infrastructure; the upper level features seven audio rooms and nine production-control rooms for the seven individual court feeds, the ESPN domestic, and the ESPN International. This year, ingest server and router capacity was increased to accommodate the additional outer-court coverage, and the stats system housed in the domestic control room continues to grow.
“It is similar to past years, but it’s just increased in size,” notes Sam Olsen, remote operations specialist, ESPN. “For me, the scale of [our operation] is what’s most impressive. It’s amazing to see the different elements get pulled together in such a short amount of time. I think we are becoming more efficient and timelier in building all those pieces and bringing in all that equipment from around the world.”
This year’s operation was made possible by 278 total technical personnel working a combined 30,500+ hours and 3,000+ days.
“We are a genuine host-broadcast operation here,” says Olsen. “Most host-broadcast operations have teams dedicated to the event two to three years out. But we are doing it in a year, while also doing the Australian Open and Wimbledon. And it’s an ongoing operation, so we’re already talking about 2019.”
CLICK HERE to check out more of SVG’s “Live From the US Open 2018” coverage.