Live From 2020 Winter Classic: NBC Sports Turns Historic Cotton Bowl Into Hockey Heaven
The 90-year-old stadium presented both technological flexibility, challenges
Roughly 12 hours into the new year, NBC Sports led off its 2020 calendar with an event that has become engrained in the fabric of U.S. sports since one cold day at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008. At this year’s NHL Winter Classic, the network showed off some all-out Texas flair at the legendary Cotton Bowl stadium with the Peacock Pit Box serving as the outdoor set, new jib cameras stationed behind each net, and an inside look within the onsite NHL Replay room.
“The equipment level has always improved and gone up every year,” says Matt Marvin, coordinating producer, NBC Sports Group. “I think our boss, [Executive Producer] Sam Flood, did that first game, and he set the tone. What he pounds in all of our heads is that you just can’t cover this like a game.”
MORE FROM THE 2020 WINTER CLASSIC
- NEP Combats Logistical Issues With Thorough Planning
- Skycam Reaps the Benefits of Spacious, Familiar Venue
- NBC Sports’ James Stuart Breaks Down Tech Coverage at the Historic Cotton Bowl
- Photo Gallery: A Day at the NHL Winter Classic
A Touch of NASCAR: Peacock Pit Box Makes Winter Classic Debut in the Fairgrounds
Just outside the main façade of the Cotton Bowl, NBC Sports constructed one of three main physical sets. Straying from typical outdoor sets visible at other events, such as the Indianapolis 500, they went in the direction of something that’s normally seen along NASCAR’s pit row.
“This is a set that we use in NASCAR [telecasts],” says Charlie “Chuck” Dammeyer, coordinating director, NBC Sports Group. “We had three total studio sets and two that were new, including this main one.”
The goal behind this structure was to reduce a potentially large footprint. Within an area congested by upwards of 85,000 hockey fans, things became a little tight. In an effort to downsize, the network decided to go with this compact solution.
A 42-Camera Bonanza: New Jibs, Skycam Headline Broadcast Lineup
When the puck dropped on the ice near the 50-yard line, a total of 42 camera feeds were accessed by Dammeyer, Marvin, and the rest of the crew. At the top of the list were two new jib cameras that NBC positioned on the backside of each net.
“They were behind the goal and pretty much rolled the width of the ice,” says Dammeyer. “If we liked it better on the near side but we didn’t have a lot of coverage on the far side, we slid it over during a TV break.”
Other operable cameras included eight super-slo-mo Sony HDC-4300’s at 6X speed; seven robotic cameras, including one in the tunnel; and up to three Marshall POVs with two set up on the team benches.
With manned cameras covering the ground, two aerial installments were above the action in Dallas. A four-point Skycam system and a fixed-wing airplane, two prominent fixtures at this outdoor event, added an extra element that can’t be done in any other scenario.
“These are four cameras [two jibs, Skycam, fixed-wing] that you would never see at an indoor hockey game,” says Dammeyer. “It really let us show off the depth and scope of an 85,000-seat stadium. You had full ice coverage in addition to all the ancillary entertainment things staged all around the rink. We showed how big and grand this was.”
With fans sitting at a far enough distance from the ice, camera angles were greatly enhanced without any obstruction.
“At a football stadium, there were no nets behind the glass,” he notes. “With the jibs, we were able to get over the top of the boards unobstructed.”
Take Another Look: Fans Go Inside NHL’s Replay Room
In a game like the Winter Classic, there is most likely something that you have never seen before. The same could be said about witnessing how NHL Operations goes about making a crucial call in a game.
With replay reviews redirected from Toronto to the Cotton Bowl, the league allowed NBC Sports to show fans the inner workings for the first time.
“If a [replay] situation arrives, we could certainly put them on camera,” said Dammeyer prior to the game. “It’s kind of a peek inside of that process, which is unique since we’ve never done it before.”
The Compound Alignment: NBC Sports Reimagines NEP’s ND4
As part of its initiative to minimize real estate and save space, NBC Sports rethought the compound layout.
The A unit of NEP’s ND4 production truck handled both the main broadcast and the pregame show. The B unit was used for other equipment, such as an onsite tape room. The C unit was left at home for efficiency’s sake.
“We were able to not bring the C unit by unloading all of the gear that we needed and adding it to [the A and B units] with NEP’s F2,” says James Stuart, senior director, operations, NBC Sports Group. “We were able to eliminate a unit because we were having a delivery truck anyway if need be.”
To handle all the RF signals running in and out of the Cotton Bowl, BSI (which is owned by NEP) set up shop in its own truck. Also, the game was distributed to fans at home in 1080i.
Everything’s Bigger in Texas: Establishing Connectivity in the Cotton Bowl
At a venue with a capacity just above 92,000, the Peacock network needed a connective infrastructure on a large scale. Add in the fact that the edifice was erected in 1930, and NBC faced an interesting challenge.
“There was no fiber in this building, so that was the first hurdle that we dealt with,” says Stuart. “Through the NHL’s partnership with Bexel, we told them where we wanted all of our positions, gave our cable list to the NHL, and Bexel ran everything for us, which gave us a huge head start when we got here.”
To accommodate the stadium’s antiquity, NBC Sports did its due diligence and planning.
“Our first [onsite] survey was in August,” he explains. “By December, we sent our tech managers and a production manager to make sure any changes that were made between September and December [were relayed to us], so everybody was working on the same page. We had weekly calls with the NHL going over everything, and then they got onsite three weeks prior to the event.”
Midway Mania: One-Hour Pregame Highlights Fan Fest of Texan Proportions
Anchored by the Peacock Pit Box, the broadcast team hopped on the air at noon to start the one-hour pregame show, which was another new wrinkle this year. Hosted by Mike Tirico, Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, Patrick Sharp, and Kathryn Tappen, the show embraced a setting that was uniquely Texas.
In one of the largest Fan Fests in the Winter Classic’s 13-year history, the Texas State Fairgrounds were transformed into a day-long carnival. And to convey the fun, the production team urged the on-air talent to interact with the crowd.
“As soon as something happened, they all roamed around nicely in the midway,” says Dammeyer. “The idea was to do this with extra RF cameras [and another jib next to the Pit Box]. We pushed the limit, but the cool thing about RF technology is that you saw the carnival atmosphere outside with a lot of RF cameras and then those cameras came inside to cover all of the team intros and the [extracurricular] flavor throughout the game.”
Inside the walls of the Cotton Bowl, seven-time Emmy Award-winner Mike “Doc” Emrick, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and “Inside the Glass” analysts Pierre McGuire and Brian Boucher were on the call.
Honoring an NHL Staple: A Moment To Reflect on the Day’s Significance
Pound for pound, the Winter Classic has turned into an experience that rivals any major event in sports. From a tech perspective, this game may even exceed other notable events.
“Technologically, this show is probably bigger than the Stanley Cup,” says Dammeyer. “Maybe there’s a few more [Stanley Cup] feeds that we take from our Canadian partners, but, in terms of equipment that we’re deploying, I have cameras and multiple sets [at the Winter Classic] that I don’t have there.”
With a crew of 125 staffers, the trio of Dammeyer, Marvin, and Stuart appreciate their responsibility for producing one of NBC’s tentpole events.
“Obviously, we’re covering a hockey game,” says Marvin, “but I would hope that fans who watch our telecast [learn] a little more about this venue. Whether we use flashbacks, graphics, or other storytelling elements, we hope you come away with a sense of the history of what happened in this building.”
Determined to showcase the true essence of hockey, with its roots as an outdoor game, the team is still learning how to push out the best show possible even after 13 years.
“When we first had the Skycam, we didn’t really know how to use it,” says Marvin. “We were kind of doing things that were a little more jarring, but, as the years [went] by, we figured out that sometimes less is more as far as movement [is concerned]. We kind of learned how to use all of these new toys that we get for this particular game. The main tenets haven’t changed, but we just find little things each year.”