NFL Draft Reflections: Van Wagner Calls Audible to Play Big Role in Draft Production

The NFL Draft set a lot of “biggest ever” numbers, including viewership during the three-day event. And, for the technical geeks out there, it also featured the largest NDI deployment ever in North America, as Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment Productions handled all of the head coach and general manager cameras as well as pre-recorded segments for the event.

“With the help of Jeff Volk and our friends at Alpha Video, it went off without a hitch,” says Bob Becker, EVP, Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment Productions. “It was all done out of our office in Raleigh, NC, and I’m very proud of our own Nate McCoart for designing this. It was quite an undertaking.”

Nate McCoart and Van Wagner came up with new workflows to help video feeds from NFL coaches and staff flowing during the 2020 NFL Draft.

Van Wagner always plays a big part at major NFL events like the Draft and the Super Bowl as it handles the in-venue video operations. This year, the original plan was to hold the Draft at the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas, all part of a celebration of the Draft as well as the Raiders NFL team moving from Oakland to Las Vegas for the upcoming season.

“The NFL are good partners with us and they called and said, ‘We aren’t doing the Draft in Vegas, but can you help us out?’” he says. “And the beauty of the guys and women working for us is they were up for it.”

As the plans came together, the NFL decided they wanted to build out the equivalent of a video call center for the teams. More than 200 iPhone kits with phones, lights, and microphones were sent to the team coaches, general managers, and top prospects. The prospects were handled by VCC (Video Call Center) while Van Wagner handled the team side of things.

The workflow designed by McCoart and the team had to come together quickly, had to be stood up quickly, and above all had to be reliable and easily tap into a smartphone-based workflow. A key piece of technology was provided by QuickLink, a UK-based company that provides systems that allow for ultra-low latency, bi-directional guest/public contributions to be remotely controlled via a web browser. The first challenge was getting it over from the UK, which involved a flight from London to JFK and then figuring out how to get it down to Raleigh. In normal times, that process is easy. But during a pandemic? Not so much, as a private driver had to be hired.

“QuickLink transmits and receives video over IP and is designed for low latency and high quality so we could transmit to DTAGS in Oklahoma City,” says Becker. DTAGS was the clearinghouse for all of the incoming signals from both VCC and Van Wagner.

Van Wagner had 11 people working on the show with four in a producer role who each had an NDI router panel in front of them so they could easily route the signals that ESPN or the NFL Network wanted to incorporate into their Draft coverage.

“We had up to eight feeds we could send and when someone like the Eagles were on the board, we could send those down two paths and then the Arizona Cardinals down two other feeds,” says Becker. “We could deliver up to six individual camera feeds along with two multiviews and it was a coordinated effort with ESPN.”

Van Wagner also handled all the production of the pre-recorded Draft picks as well as PSAs and musical acts.

Key to the efforts was the use of more than 200 pre-configured kits that the NFL sent out to teams and prospects. Each of the phones had a Lyric Broadcaster app installed on it that would send the content from the phones to the NFL’s Haivision Media Gateway and AWS, which is used during the regular season for officiating video.

“The kits were pre-configured and the app had settings that were pre-set so there was very little backend configuration at the coach and general manager locations,” says McCoart. “We would run speed tests for WiFi, and LTE bandwidth and one even had their son fire up the Xbox.”

Adds Becker: “Most of the teams also have IT guys so it was pretty much set and forget and, if needed, call the IT guys to help do something like adjust a camera.”

McCoart says the content coming in from the teams flowed into Gallery’s Sienna Cloud, which was the processing engine to bring the streams in and then frame sync color correct and strip the audio.

“And we had a failover on the incoming stream, so if the signal dropped out, the feed went to a logo,” says McCoart.

The Van Wagner team also worked closely with Alpha Video, which is the recommended U.S. dealer for Sienna.

“We have a very long running history with Alpha so we chattered through it and it looked like a system that could handle it even though it never tested a workflow this large,” says McCoart. “We hit some roadblocks but got all the kinks ironed out the day before the Draft.”

A Riedel Communications package ensured everyone was tied together and, ultimately, Sienna was able to bring 65 concurrent streams into their cloud routing product, which acted like a real-world video router but virtually routed transmission paths from Van Wagner to ESPN in Bristol, CT.

“The NDI transport mechanism grabs outputs as selected sources and then sends them to AWS and then to a partner device that can feed those NDI streams into a router and more traditional workflow,” says Becker.

From Van Wagner’s facility in Raleigh the signals were sent to DTAGS in Oklahoma City via QuickLink’s ST102 encoder/decoder that relied on web protocol to send the signals over the open internet and with a latency of 100 ms.

“It’s quick and easy to deploy as it doesn’t require a heavy amount of programming,” says McCoart.

Van Wagner had a team of 11 on the show including four producers with NDI routers in front of them to make sure the right feeds were going to the right end user. And, for everyone involved in the project, the Draft itself was a culmination of new technology enabling new workflows that allowed a show that arguably would have been impossible three years ago to be pulled off for record audiences.

“Technology has come a very far way and it shows that you can pull something like this off,” says McCoart. “It was three weeks of meetings and calls to design a workflow and it was ever-changing as production teams were making decisions there was a handshake with the technical team to bring it all together. We had to be flexible and adapt to handle multiple iterations.”

Check out all of SVG’s in-depth coverage of the 2020 NFL Draft: