Tennis Channel Serves Up Live Content During Sports Hiatus With UTR Pro Match Series
Ross Mobile Productions is providing necessary equipment, infrastructure
This past weekend was a momentous time in U.S. sports. Fox Sports presented The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Speedway, the organization’s first competition in more than two months. Nine days before that race, Tennis Channel offered a live event experience during the UTR Pro Match Series from May 8-10. The tennis experience will return Memorial Day Weekend (May 22-24) with the help of Ross Mobile Productions (RMP) and Tennis Channel headquarters in Los Angeles.
“We were quite proud of what everybody accomplished that weekend with the UTR Pro Match Series down in West Palm Beach, FL,” says Bob Whyley, SVP/executive producer, Tennis Channel. “All the safety precautions were fully in place, but, as far as the way we did the production, I think that’s what we’re most proud of.”
Safety First: Essential Protocols and Measures in the Age of Coronavirus
In recent months, the new normal has been to get used to daily life without televised sports. As a few sports begin the gradual comeback, the newest normal is adapting to empty arenas or stadiums and implementing guidelines that ensure the health and safety of all involved. The Tennis Channel production followed a stringent plan of action In West Palm Beach a few weekends ago and will enforce the measures this coming weekend.
“Onsite personnel wore face masks and practice social distancing,” Whyley explains. “And we had a nurse present so every single person who went into the facility had to check in and get their temperature taken. When you have less people, that always makes things safer as well.”
In addition to the local 18-member production crew, both athletes and officials are doing their part. To prevent cross-contamination, each player is assigned a certain number of marked tennis balls that only they are allowed to use. Aside from the balls, players are allowed to use only designated drinks and towels. In addition, the competition is being held at a private and undisclosed location to discourage large gatherings.
No Obstruction: Empty Stands Allow Unique Shots From Jibs, RF Drone
Next weekend’s singles-only tournament will once again be without fans, but, while the production will lack the energy they bring, producing an event without obstruction by spectators allows Tennis Channel to manipulate the environment to enhance the broadcast. To break away from the traditional camera setup, Whiley adds some flavor with full court coverage provided by a 24-ft. jib crane brandishing an Ikegami HDK-99 camera at each end of the court.
“We needed to take advantage of something that that would usually be a disadvantage, which is not having a live audience rooting for the players and being a part of the show,” he says. “The cameras would just peek over the fence, so the cameras were high enough to see the service line on the other side but low enough to see the speed and intimacy of the sport. The jib arm would get in the way of the folks in the stands, but, now that there is no one in the stands, we’re using a technology that really makes the action pop.”
If a pair of 24-ft. jibs wasn’t enough, Tennis Channel recruited Sky Reality Productions for an element that took to the sky above the court. “The camera that brought this show to life was the RF drone,” says Whiley. “We used that quite a bit for some live coverage and replays.”
To compensate for a reduced crew, two Ross CamBot robotic cameras were situated at the halfway point along the baseline to supply alternative views of the action and assisted a handheld camera operator with an Ikegami HDK-99 who worked outside the court. To add extra color, a Marshall CV-502 POV camera was mounted to the umpire’s chair.
Onsite Presence: RMP Supplies Sprinter Van, Audio/Comms
Besides supplying six of the seven live cameras, RMP is responsible for other production essentials: a mobile unit in the compound, audio and communication devices, and replay.
Inside the company’s Sprinter van are an eight-channel EVS replay server, a Calrec Brio36 audio console, Ross Carbonite Black Plus 3M/E switcher, and Ross Abekas Mira multichannel replay server.
To accommodate for the missing crew, the onsite personnel wore multiple hats during the tournament.
“We had people doing multiple roles,” Whyley explains. “[For example], the TD was the director, the handheld operator was also the A2, and you only need one person to do graphics. That kind of secret-sauce mix worked for us.”
A Global Effort: Tennis Channel’s L.A. Studio Facilitates the World Feed
Located 2,780 miles from West Palm Beach, Tennis Channel’s Los Angeles-based studio served as the door to the world. To handle the world feed, the network sent dual feeds from its onsite facility to Sinclair station WPEC West Palm Beach, led by GM Mike Pumo. LTN Global was responsible for uplinking duties and shipping the signal to Los Angeles.
Inside the studio, a dozen of individuals managed on-air graphics supplied by TV Graphics, real-time data via Sportradar, and storytelling elements that added some context to the live action. For live commentary, Andy Roddick and Jim Curry were patched through on Skype and reflected onto the broadcast. In addition to the world feed, Los Angeles gave a hand in other transmission paths as well.
“The output from the control room in went to all of the RSNs, Marquee [Sports Network], YES [Network], and WTVX, the CW affiliate in West Palm Beach,” says Whyley.
Looking Ahead: Tennis Channel Plans Similar Layout for Next Weekend
After wrapping the first go-round, Whyley and the Tennis Channel team are primed to continue the positive momentum heading into the holiday weekend with a similar run of show.
“We started to come into stride on how to do proper game coverage with the jib, now that we have some of those rhythms down,” he says. “When we do the show from the 22nd through the 24th, the talent will be different, but it will be a carbon copy of production operations.”
With a majority of sports on the bench and upcoming tennis tournaments slated to run without fans in the stands, Whyley looks at this upcoming tournament as a continued trial run giving his employees much-needed reps for what will most likely be the standard for the foreseeable future.
“I think that you will see this kind of coverage, knowing that stadiums will be empty,” he opines. “Why not use different technologies now that you’re not inhibited by fans to bring the better in-home experience? Overall, we want to bring a high-quality production to the forefront.”
The women’s side of the UTR Pro Match Series returns to West Palm Beach this weekend. Matches will run from 12 to 3 p.m. ET May 22-24.