Live From the US Open: ESPN’s Jamie Reynolds Talks Production Philosophy, Ratings Boost
Massive effort produces 1,300+ hours of content for multiple platforms
As ESPN enters the homestretch at the US Open — its largest production of the year — the broadcaster’s monumental production efforts look to be paying off. After 10 days of Open coverage, ESPN’s 1.0 average overnight rating is up 25% from 0.8 a year ago. Through Tuesday, all key demos, including a 23% rise among female viewers and 11% among viewers age 18-34.
In total, more than 600 people (some onsite since mid July) are working to deliver more than 1,300 hours of content (including 160 hours on linear TV) from all 16 courts to ESPN’s various platforms. That’s in addition to ESPN’s role as the host broadcaster of the event, serving the needs of networks around the world.
SVG sat down with ESPN VP, Production, Jamie Reynolds at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center this week to chat about ESPN’s expanded coverage of the qualifying tournament, the success of its ACES semi-automated production system on outer courts, technology deployed at Arthur Ashe Stadium and the other showcase courts, balancing host-feed and domestic-coverage responsibilities, the impact of ESPN+ streaming on his production philosophy, and more.
ESPN expanded its coverage of US Open qualifying this year on ESPN+ and ESPNEWS. How did that go, and how did your approach change from last year’s?
Last year, we took over the host-broadcast responsibility for five courts for qualifying week, working with Tennis Channel and USTA, and really took that to the next level this year. I think we underestimated just how much excitement and how much equity there was in that event. You have all these rising stars coming up and then also have [well-known] players trying to get back into the main draw. You have these two ends of the spectrum that are both really attractive.
We also don’t have the same sponsorship obligations and restrictions [as for the main draw], so you can actually gain access to players in the middle of practice. We can go and talk to people around the grounds as they’re signing autographs, so that was very exciting. We came in with a more integrated approach and show that friendly atmosphere here — and less so the tension and the drama. It’s an open ticket, so anybody can get in, and these players are walking around the venue interacting with the crowd. We had six to eight hours in the day where players and personalities were actually around for a half-hour set visit, as opposed to a three-minute hit between matches. It opened up the format a lot.
The ACES semi-automated production system is back on the outer courts. How has the production quality from those courts improved since its launch last year?
I think we’ve gotten much stronger on the ACES court experience. We’ve finally got all the Camera 1 robo positions oriented with the same perspective on every court. And we aligned the experience of the courts to a point where they were approximating the traditional linear court-coverage schemes.
SMT also had made a more sophisticated integration program for scoring and officiating this year. You have this dynamic where your graphics on screen are more dynamic relative to what is happening on the court, and the chair umpire activates [elements] automatically. I also think the tracking is a little softer and the camera moves are smoother, so it feels closer to a traditional [show-court] experience.
What are some of the key production highlights on the showcase courts?
Obviously, this venue has changed a lot over the past few years, and I think the USTA has finally got to the point where the entire venue feels like a consolidated theater, court-to-court. We’ve been taking advantage of that experience throughout the tournament.
On Ashe, we’ve been really happy with the new [courtside] LED screens, which change the texture of the experience on a court. That has been a huge boost to the visual presentation. We still rely on Spidercam and multiple Steadicam systems on Ashe to showcase the featured matchups so that you can feel the electricity and energy inside that venue. As much as we’ve made it a priority to go into more aerial coverage, we’re now also adding to our ground-level interactive experience with those Steadicams.
Armstrong has worked its kinks out, and we’ve got the Camera 1 platform solidified so that it’s at the level we expect it to be. And they’ve had some tremendous tennis out there this year.
I absolutely love the Grandstand experience, and it has been a terrific court to showcase on ESPN+ now that we have that [platform] to serve. We haven’t had as much linear time there, but we’ve featured it prominently on the ESPN+ side.
I think our grounds coverage has been great, too. We have that two-point [FlyCam] system over the Fountain Plaza, which is always a great shot and takes advantage of the record crowds they have had this year. That has been a huge asset once again.
Please expand on how the new LED board on the court at Ashe has impacted ESPN’s center-court–coverage strategy.
We have experienced that in-arena system [at the Australian Open] in Melbourne for several years. What’s interesting here, though, is how much they really leaned into the color blue since Chase [is sponsoring], and blue is such prominent identification for the USTA and this venue. We have to keep a close eye on how that deep blue reads on camera and keep the branding alive.
We haven’t seen a lot of the in-show elements typically, only because we tend to be in commercial break when they activate the screen. But when we do stay for a changeover, it definitely adds an energy, brightness, and a brand-new feel to our coverage.
Our biggest problem was super-slo-mo, where we had a little bit of moiré effect with the screen in the background on those isolated replays. We had to fine-tune that, but we were able to work it out after qualifying week.
How does the production team balance host-feed duties with the needs of ESPN’s domestic coverage?
The advancement in technology has allowed us to offer essentially the same basic level of experience from Court 1 to Court 16. We’re trying to get the outer courts’ look and feel similar to the traditional linear court coverage, and technology has allowed us to do that.
However, that technology also provides a challenge in that we still need to make [the showcase] courts feel different and unique. As technology improves and makes for a better base-level product, what’s the extra spark or the extra ingredient we can put on top of that [world feed] that can make the ESPN Domestic and ESPN International [coverage] better?
Technology has pushed the responsibility back to the creative side, where we’re focused on what talent we assign [to each court] and what [production elements] we can add to enhance the viewership. That’s where we look to [Intel] True View [360 replay], Spidercam, [virtual] graphics, and other ingredients that are outside that base level of the host feed. That’s where we believe we can set ourselves apart: making those [elements] available faster and more prominently so the casual fan can better understand what’s going on.
How has the increase in content live-streamed on ESPN+ and ESPN3 changed your production philosophy at the Open?
At the end of the day, the ability to stream 16 courts on ESPN+ and ESPN3 actually forces us to focus more on the showcase courts. That gives a little more screen time back to the talent and the analysts, as well as the analytical tools available. We’ve prioritized their formatting into each match; we go into the day knowing exactly what the targets are. We’ve reduced the creative angst of having to bounce around to all the courts because we know we’re still servicing the fans with that content on another platform. We don’t have to worry as much about getting in every highlight from the outer courts.
That said, we still have that ability to showcase the two-box [on-screen format] and have been doing that often. When you have those dramatic moments going on [outside the featured match], you still want that linear experience to be better than anything else you can get.
Any changes this year to your onsite sets at the Tennis Center?
We love our [set locations] here, so no major changes this year. We’ve got the practice-court pavilion [during the day] and the Fountain Plaza set at night, plus we have our three booths between Ashe, Armstrong, and Grandstand. I think the USTA is happy with how their venue is looking, and we want to make sure that continues to be the case. It works for us to be so close to the five practice courts because you have Raf, Fed, Serena, and the other [stars] warming up during the day right behind us. Next year, we would love to have that fence and guard rail eliminated, so coaches and players are just walking back and forth to create this true veranda out to the practice court and we can be more interactive with it. That would be very cool.
How would you evaluate ESPN’s coverage thus far?
We’ve witnessed 43% growth over last year [as of Tuesday], and Saturday alone with the Coco-Naomi match was up 83% [over the same day last year]. Tennis is connecting with more fans, and that success helps this event become more robust and intriguing.
I think we’ve been fortunate to have a so many great stories thus far. Obviously, the possibility of Serena 24 is very exciting, and there’s a poetic justice to all that coming in this year after what happened last year. We hope we can continue to be a part of her journey.