ESPN Embraces Full At-Home Workflow for the WNBA’s 2019 Season
Only the All-Star Game and Finals will be produced onsite
Heading into its 23rd season, the WNBA is hitting its stride in the national limelight. In the recent offseason, the league signed a 40-game, multiyear deal with CBS Sports and found a digital home for all postgame recaps on Facebook Watch. To capitalize on that momentum, ESPN is hyping up its productions for the new season, which includes an uptick in televised broadcasts (with three nationwide productions on ABC) and a REMI-exclusive workflow for coverage of the entire regular season.
“All of our productions for the [16 games of the] regular season, first and second rounds, and the semifinals of the playoffs are REMI-driven,” says Rodney Vaughn, WNBA producer, ESPN. “The All-Star Game [in Las Vegas] and the WNBA Finals are full [onsite] productions, but [all REMI productions] are produced out of Bristol, CT.”
Home-Court Advantage: Putting REMI to the Test
In an age of increased at-home production, ESPN’s REMI procedure will be the backbone of this year’s productions. A nationwide audience will witness three of these productions, and ESPN Associate Manager, Remote Operations, Jarrett Baker (alongside Senior Remote Operations Coordinator Justin McIntosh and Operations Producers Tracy Howe, Barb Williams, Shane Smith, and Randy Joseph) is adding some powerful reinforcements to ensure that the job is done without any hiccups.
“We’re really looking forward to doing WNBA REMIs on ABC,” says Baker. “The opportunity came up in the offseason, and we had a number of conversations with our counterparts at ABC in New York, with our transmission and production groups, to make sure everyone is on the same page [in order] to make sure those telecasts run smoothly. [Given the] magnitude of ABC, we’re adding a couple of backup procedures that we might not have on our [other] regular-season REMIs on ESPN2. We’ll have a backup generator onsite and some backup transmissions that are in the works. We’re just taking a couple of extra precautions.”
From a distribution standpoint, these telecasts will be solely in 720p HD. Although this format will remain consistent, the staff will have two methods of transmission to HQ in Bristol. In venues that have a switcher with IP capability, eight JPEG 2000-encoded feeds will be at the production team’s disposal. In venues without permanent installation, either fiber provided by AT&T or an uplink signal from a satellite will do the job.
“When we have 10 paths out, we’re able to send our Marshall [POV cams] and a scoreboard reference camera back to the PCR on their own dedicated paths,” says Baker. “When we have eight paths, we have to make that a routable source that changes between the Marshalls and the scoreboard as needed.”
Action-Packed Slate: Season Details and Production Headlines
As the 2019 season starts, WNBA coverage promises a wealth of storylines. From intriguing trades and unfortunate injuries to a breath of fresh air with an impressive draft class, Vaughn has a ton of creative carpentry in his toolbox.
“There are a number of storylines going into this WNBA season,” he explains. “One of the biggest ones is that there are a number of star players that either are choosing to be out [like Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore] or are injured [Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart and Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi]. Two great players changed teams, and [it] will be interesting to see their impact: Chiney Ogumike going to Los Angeles and, recently, Liz Cambage going from Dallas to Las Vegas. There will also be a great rookie class that is going to be starting this year, with Jackie Young being taken No. 1 overall to Las Vegas and Arike Ogunbowale over in Dallas.”
Although themes will unfold on the hardwood as the season progresses, Vaughn, Baker, and the rest of the WNBA crew have developed a production element that allows fans to hear game-day storylines during the course of the action. One month from now, on June 23, the “Coaches on the Bench” wrinkle will return, placing analysts Rebecca Lobo and Kara Lawson on respective benches during the Washington Mystics at Atlanta Dream game.
“A few years ago, I was producing college basketball, and we did a telecast with Seth Greenberg and Dan Dakich at the University of Illinois,” says Vaughn. “We did something similar where we put the two with a coach of both universities, and it was very effective in the sense that we got a perspective on what they were hearing on the sidelines from the coaches and assistants.
“I took that idea,” he continues, “brought it to the WNBA last year, and used Lobo and Lawson for a game in Connecticut [vs. the Los Angeles Sparks]. I thought it gave the viewer great insight into what Rebecca and Kara were able to hear in terms of substitution patterns, what coaches were disagreeing with about referee calls, [etc.]. They were able to hear those things [that] they’re not usually able to hear on the other side of the floor.”
To facilitate seamless transitions between the traditional broadcast and the specialized locations, Vaughn established a system that would allow up to three-boxes of content simultaneously.
“We [will] designate one of our high cameras to [Lobo and Lawson], and then we [will] utilize a three-box on screen periodically throughout the game,” he says. “The game is in the middle of the picture [while] Rebecca’s position and Kara’s position are in two smaller boxes above the screen. [At times,] we’ll have Kara and Rebecca in a two-box while [analyst] Ryan Ruocco will be doing traditional play-by-play at the table by himself.”
On July 6 (Suns vs. Lynx) and Aug. 27 (Sparks vs. Mystics), play-by-play duties will be split between the studio and the arena for two servings of the “Legends Game.” For the first, three-time MVP Sheryl Swoopes will be calling the game remotely, and two-time MVP Cynthia Cooper-Dyke will do the same courtside. For the second, the duo will swap roles. This special-edition broadcast encapsulates this season’s production mentality.
Says Vaughn, “We want to continue to have our [studio] talent engaged in our broadcasts and have our [onsite talent] say, ‘Hey, let’s bring in Sheryl Swoopes or Cynthia Cooper-Dyke’ while the game is going on and not just wait to hear from them at halftime. The studio side and the game side are a team, and we’re going to allow them to have creative ideas. [For example], if we’re seeing buzzer beaters happening on other games occurring that night, I’ll want to do a cut-in right away at the next dead ball, do a two-box squeeze back [to the studio], show the buzzer beater, and then get back to the [current] game right away as opposed to waiting for a commercial break to do the cut-in.”
More Access = More Opportunities: League Support for Innovation
Over the years, the WNBA has given broadcasters increased leeway for innovation, and this season is no different. With the league’s backing, ESPN has pursued new ideas and concepts that can be used on every telecast. Despite having Lobo and Lawson near the benches, the network will continue to provide insider knowledge with those who are participating.
“We also began getting more access with the league [to implement] coaches mics and player mics on selected games,” Vaughn notes. “Also, we added a player interview out of the first timeout in the first quarter. Realistically, [sideline reporters] Holly Rowe or LaChina [Robinson] will be standing at the bench after a certain timeout, and we will have already designated a player with the league who will come over to them [from the floor] and give us a quick, two-question interview. We turn [that] around and air it after the next commercial break. [Fans] are getting [knowledge] from a player that just walked off of the floor [and is] giving viewers a thought of what they’re seeing early in the game.”
Before the action starts, ESPN will continue to conduct pregame interviews with predetermined players. Although this procedure has become customary, the network has curated a new file-transfer system that will expedite the editing process.
Baker explains, “In the past, we’ve done [our pregame player interviews] through the truck with a cable handheld camera in the interview room. It usually took place a couple of hours before the game right after we cleared transmission, so it presented some scheduling challenges for the players who need to get ready for the game [and for] our teams onsite [and in the studio] to do a complete and thorough fax [of the footage]. We’re moving to an ENG interview style that is a different approach for us, plus we’ll be using file transfer to send that material back to Bristol six to seven hours before the game, so that everything can be edited and composited.”
The sidelines aren’t the only perspective that will be accessed by viewers at home. Equipment, such as last year’s additional Marshalls beneath the basket, will put a greater emphasis on the battle occurring between post players in the paint. The overall complement for a standard game is six cameras: three hard cameras (one covering the entire game, one capturing tight shots, and one slash camera from either the left or right side depending on the venue) and three handhelds (two under the basket, one at center court).
When Stars Align: Matching Sight and Sound at 2019 All-Star Game
When the league’s All-Stars convene in Las Vegas, ESPN operations will add flavor to the annual broadcast, highlighting the players’ personalities.
“One thing that we’ve been working on since last year,” says Vaughn, “is putting a wired IFB [interruptible foldback] on several players on the bench during the All-Star Game. This year, we’re going to push that envelope a little further by, hopefully, having a wireless IFB while the player is on the floor in the game and our talent will be able to converse with them.
Mic’d up! 🎤
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 31, 2018
“We did this same technology this year on the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game,” he continues, “and [2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year] A’ja Wilson was one of the players that wore the mic along with [legendary NBA sharpshooter] Ray Allen. We tried it out on the NBA side and knew that it worked, so I’m looking forward to using it at [this year’s WNBA] All-Star Game.”
In addition to the wireless IFB, the All-Star Game will have an additional hard camera in the slash position and a dedicated beauty camera. ESPN Remote Operations Specialist Tom Clark will lead the charge at the exhibition game, as well as at the WNBA Finals later in the year.
Full Speed Ahead: WNBA Coverage Continues To Evolve
Now in his fourth season covering the WNBA, Vaughn has witnessed the gradual evolution of the REMI workflow and other aspects of the production.
“We were just beginning the REMI workflow,” he points out, “so there were a lot of growing pains because everything was brand new. Three years ago, we weren’t doing any of the player interviews out of the first quarter. We weren’t even doing halftime and studio segments at that particular time, which I thought needed to be a mandate of our telecasts. The biggest thing I wanted to push was not only having our talent work in a studio format but [adding] former and current players as well. This league is one of the few leagues willing to give us the unfettered access that we’re asking for and to try different things.”
Baker relishes in the feeling of complete technological freedom.
“Our production group has really preached inclusiveness,” he says. “There’s a statement that ‘any idea is a good idea, so let’s talk about it.’ It’s fun to have the property of the WNBA because, when you have a league that’s fully embracing new ways to bring fans closer to the players, show the human side of the players, and [express] the unique relationships we’ve made with some of the stars, it gives us the opportunity to try new things throughout the season.”
ESPN’s first game on May 25 is a matchup from the 2018 semifinals, pitting Sue Bird and the defending champion Seattle Storm against the Phoenix Mercury. Tipoff is at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.