2019-20 College Basketball Preview: ESPN Maintains Weekly 4K Initiative, Goes Global With Games in Alaska, China

Fans can enjoy upwards of 3,000 games on the network’s family of outlets

ESPN’s college basketball season begins tonight with a tantalizing appetizer in the State Farm Champions Classic with No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Duke at 7 p.m. ET and No. 1 Michigan State and No. 2 Kentucky at 9:30 p.m. in Madison Square Garden. After the doubleheader in “The Mecca,” top billing on the network’s production list includes its commitment to producing games in native-4K resolution, additional responsibilities with ACC Network and Big 12 Now on ESPN+, increased REMI deployment, a pair of games outside the contiguous United States, and a five-game regular-season slate on ABC for the first time since 2009.

The 2019 Champions Classic, tipping off tonight, features the top four teams in the nation.

“The 2019-20 college basketball season will tip off in the World’s Most Famous Arena with the State Farm Champions Classic,” says Erin Orr, remote operations manager, ESPN. “Under the big, bright lights of New York City, ESPN will showcase the top four teams in the country.”

A Weekly Effort: Selected Games To Be in 4K
In what started last month as a college-football project, with the first of six games being Florida vs. LSU down the Bayou State, ESPN is dabbling with organic 4K productions on the hardwood.

On the college-football front, the “Samsung QLED 4K Game of the Week” was facilitated with the help of Game Creek Video’s Spirit mobile unit, 14 4K cameras, MediaKind’s HEVC encoding, and other components. Although DirecTV became the first distributor of the package, Comcast soon followed as a second provider of the content.

This isn’t the only time that the network has recently upgraded its transmission plan. During the final few months of the MLB season, Sunday Night Baseball switched over to 1080p. As for basketball of the professional variety, all NBA on ESPN games will be seen in the same format.

According to Orr, games produced in 4K will be on a week-to-week basis.

Start It Off Right: Champions Classic Sees Return of Spidercam
Similar to last year’s Champions Classic at Indianapolis’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse, this year’s iteration features an onslaught of technology to kick off the basketball campaign.

Near the banners commemorating the retired numbers of New York Knicks and Rangers greats, a Spidercam point-to-point aerial system will provide views from above the court and headline the 16-camera show. Still above ground level, Fletcher has provided a Sony HDC-P1 above-the-rim and Grass Valley 3X-slo-mo Slam Cam robotic systems on each basket. Closer to the court, a 6X-slo-mo system at mid court will handle high-speed duties, and two hard cameras will be stationed at the slash positions. To round out the complement, both a RF and a cabled handheld will be in use, and Marshall POVs, a college-basketball staple, will be scattered about the place. And ESPN is testing Fan Cam behind the scenes at the season-opening doubleheader.

In the television compound on the outskirts of MSG, Game Creek Video’s Chesapeake mobile unit will be at the center of the main game production but will share its resources with the College GameDay truck, which will be running a live version of the show on the court prior to tipoff. Some of these resources include 38 total EVS replay channels.

In typical New York City fashion, Madison Square Garden has been involved in a ton of high-profile events over the past few days. Starting on Thursday, Oct. 31, the venue has hosted two Dead & Company shows, a UFC bout between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz, a Knicks game vs. the Sacramento Kings, and a Rangers game vs. the Ottawa Senators. Because these events have kept the Garden buzzing with constant activity, the ESPN team was forced to set up a fair amount of infrastructure and equipment in the early-morning hours of Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Although tonight’s highly anticipated matchups are receiving the five-star treatment, the Saturday Primetime schedule will feature the same technological firepower and support. These telecasts can deploy as many as 15 cameras (with the exception of the Spidercam).

Load Management: REMI Productions, Project Collaboration Stand Strong
With 3,100 total games on the docket, production crews will be rather busy. ESPN’s continued push to enhance its REMI workflow took a massive leap last year with more than 200 games. 2019 continues that effort with a chunk of broadcasts leveraging this production model.

“REMI continues to be a huge part of our basketball season,” says Orr. “We will produce [using] REMI across the country in conjunction with Bristol, CT; Charlotte, NC; and Wide World of Sports [in Orlando] control rooms.”

Although REMI workflows provide a cost-effective outlet, the obstacle comes in the form of a lack of face-to-face communication. To bridge the gap, a mobile app has been keeping the in-house teams in touch with members who are out at the venue.

“With AppSheet, we develop an app to keep the remote population up-to-date and access the latest information on their mobile devices,” she continues. “Through push notifications, we are able to send alerts of new information like manuals, interactive maps, other remote-based documents.”

On-Campus Activity: ACC Network, Big 12 Now on ESPN+ Get Schools Involved
As a new wrinkle in 2019, ESPN’s traditional productions inside collegiate control rooms will add 68 exclusive telecasts on ACC Network and 41 live streams of Big 12 Now on ESPN+. These extra telecasts have proverbially added food to an already packed plate.

“With the launch of the ACC Network, the total amount of games we have for the year has increased. The ACC Network launch has been a successful project in which college basketball will see a lot of benefits, efficiencies, and the true partnerships help showcase the conference on TV,” says Orr. “The majority of these games will be produced from the ACC control rooms on the respective school’s campuses.”

For the Big 12, it’s a chance to bolster a digital offering that covers a ton of other Division I conferences.

“Our new partnership with the Big 12 has added additional games on ESPN+ as well,” Orr says. They will follow our linear truck production model, with the exception of Oklahoma, where we will use the broadcast facilities of SoonerVision.”

Along with these new entities, games on the SEC Network and Longhorn Network will continue as in years past.

To make sure the onsite visits go as planned, a behind-the-scenes workflow is keeping Orr and each of the teams on the same page. Smartsheet, a cloud-based project-management platform, is helping alleviate stress or prevent miscommunication by allowing any person to comment on the upcoming production plan. Some features being accessed include shipping logistics, specifications regarding the night’s venue, credential lists, hotel requests, and other pertinent information.

“ESPN’s college-basketball operations are utilizing Smartsheet to house all major components of planning and coordination during the season,” Orr says. “The operations team has benefited from the efficient, live, up-to-date ability within the program. To help maintain the information flow, all operations staff will utilize the Dashboard feature to obtain the latest information from Bristol.”

As Smartsheet handles the onsite aspect and AppSheet corrals the REMI method, the network is able to address any bump in the road before it occurs.

“Between the mobile app and Smartsheet, we are able to engage our in-house and remote teams,” says Orr. “It’s a way to simplify the constant influx of ever-changing information in live sports television.”

The Global Game: Armed Forces Classic Lands in Alaska, Pac-12 Travels to China
College basketball arenas haven’t been the only home for the sport. The game has been played in the unlikeliest of places, including the shores of San Diego on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson for the 2011 Carrier Classic. In this year’s Armed Forces Classic on Friday, the ninth-annual event will pit the Baylor Bears and Washington Huskies as well as University of Alaska Anchorage and the Coast Guard Academy at Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage. In addition to the typical Saturday Primetime equipment layout, a VER Flypack will be deployed for the games being shown on ESPN and ESPNU.

In terms of logistics, ESPN has worked hand-in-hand with both the venue personnel and the military for support, communication, and access.

On the same day, two conference foes will be traveling overseas. In the 2019 Pac-12 China Game Presented by the Alibaba Group, the Arizona State Sun Devils will go toe-to-toe with the University of Colorado Buffaloes at Baoshan Sports Centre in Shanghai, China.

National Spotlight: ABC Grabs College Hoops for First Time in 10 Years
After the final buzzer sounded on a No. 17 UCLA victory over Oregon on March 7, 2009, regular-season college basketball games would go dark on ABC for a decade. Now on the cusp of 2020, ABC has gained multiple games back on its airwaves beginning next month.

On Sunday, Dec. 8, it will be an all-Texas affair with Texas A&M vs. Texas at 3 p.m. About a week later, UCLA will visit the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame on Saturday, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. Then, South Carolina will square off against national champion University of Virginia on Sunday, Dec. 22 at 3 p.m. Before the year ends, Kansas will head out west, taking on Stanford on Saturday, Dec. 29 at 3 p.m. And to wrap up ABC’s year, another intrastate rivalry will have Oklahoma State play the University of Oklahoma on Saturday, Feb. 1 at 3 p.m.

The Marathon Ahead: ESPN Prepares To Cover Every Upset, Buzzer Beater, Storyline
The college basketball staff will be on their toes all season long (a total of 152 games will be played from today until the end of the calendar year). In an attempt to cover all there is to offer in college basketball this season, Orr and the rest of the team at ESPN expect a challenging yet thrilling season.

“We will have a lot of work ahead of us as a team, but we’re very excited for the year ahead,” she says. “We are continuing to research and test new technologies for our productions and are working to create further efficiencies within operations to make for a more seamless production.”