ESPN Returns to Live-Events Ring With Top Rank Boxing Productions in Vegas
Extensive safety protocols are instituted for onsite crew
“I can’t tell you how excited we are just to be getting back into the live-event business.”
It’s impossible to miss the enthusiasm in ESPN, SVP, Remote Production Operations, Chris Calcinari’s voice as he looks ahead to the network’s first truly live event production in nearly three months. As the sports world gradually returns to action, tonight’s Top Rank boxing telecast — the first in a series of fights at Las Vegas’s MGM Grand Conference Center Grand Ballroom in the coming weeks — will mark a welcome return to the production compound for ESPN’s remote-ops team.
“We’ve been sitting on the sidelines for more than two months now, so our team is excited to be back to work,” says Calcinari. “We didn’t know how long this was going to take, and we’re now on the cusp of bringing back a whole bunch of different [live properties]. We could not be more excited, and we’re focused on creating a safe working environment for everyone.”
While ESPN has carried the live-event torch the best it could over the past three months, with telecasts ranging from the NFL Draft to English-language commentary of KBO baseball and even Cornhole, tonight’s Top Rank broadcast will be the first event fully produced by ESPN staff since the sports industry halted abruptly in mid March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Inside the Compound: Health and Safety Remain Paramount
ESPN parked its Top Rank Boxing trucks, NEP’s NCPX A and B, on Friday, a day earlier than for a typical boxing-show setup.
“We built in a little more time for our operations team to get onsite and get acquainted with the venue, as well as with Top Rank’s new policies and procedures,” says Calcinari. “NEP also arrived onsite early to make sure everything is in good shape since these trucks have not operated in quite some time. We’re giving our folks the best opportunity to be successful by bringing everything in a little bit earlier.”
Also on hand at the compound are Filmwerks’ generator, providing backup power; The Switch, handling primary backhaul via dedicated fiber circuit; Kaufman Broadcast’s satellite uplink for backup transmission; and AVS, managing ESPN’s RF cameras and coordination.
With health and safety in mind, ESPN has established four zones to which crew members are restricted: the A unit, the B unit, the area in the compound outside the mobile units, and inside the venue. Individuals are required to stay at least 6 ft. from others assigned their zone and at least 10 ft. from those assigned to a different one. All crew members have been provided safety kits with multiple washable masks (which they are required to wear in the compound), a digital thermometer, and health-based checklists.
Other safety measures include parking the A and B units 10+ ft. apart to allow social distancing for crew entering/exiting the units, new air-filtration systems in the NEP trucks, and additional bathrooms in the compound. In terms of catering, ESPN is providing three prepackaged or chef-plated meals per day in lieu of typical buffet-style meals.
“We’re trying to keep a fair amount of distance between all of the areas that people occupy,” says Calcinari. “There is a lot of work and detail that goes into putting an event together with all of our vendors, with each of our staff and what we expect of them, and with the approval and collaboration process back in Bristol.”
Outside the compound, Top Rank is managing all testing and quarantine protocols for the event. The promoter has created a “bubble” encompassing an entire locked-off floor of the MGM Grand with all fight camps, Top Rank staff, ESPN production crew, and several members of the Nevada State Athletic Commission occupying 200+ rooms. Anyone arriving on that floor immediately goes in for testing and is told to quarantine in their room until results are available a few hours later.
Top Rank has created a second bubble at the Conference Center for Top Rank and ESPN offices, training facilities for fighters, and the ring itself inside the Grand Ballroom. Everybody must pass a temperature test prior to entering the Conference Center.
“[The safety protocols] are going according to plan so far,” says Top Rank COO Brad Jacobs. “The hard work we put into developing our protocol playbook is paying off. It was tested right off the bat over the weekend with Mikaela Mayer [who tested positive], and, thankfully, we already had a protocol in place to handle that.”
‘Modified REMI’: Production Ops Split Between Vegas and Bristol
To limit the number of people onsite, ESPN is using a “modified REMI” (remote-integration) production model for the fight productions. In this workflow, the director and TD are onsite, producing a line cut with replays that is sent to ESPN’s Bristol, CT, headquarters, where graphics, non-replay tape rolls, and commentary are integrated into the telecast.
ESPN is using three commentary methods for its on-air talent during tonight’s fight. ESPN’s Top Rank play-by-play commentator, Joe Tessitore, will be calling the action from a studio in Bristol; reporter Bernardo Osuna will be onsite in the Grand Ballroom; and the network’s trio of analysts — Andre Ward, Tim Bradley, and Mark Kriegel — will participate from their respective homes using ESPN’s widely deployed “Live From Home” studio kits.
“We are extremely comfortable with the home commentary systems that we’ve developed,” says Calcinari. “They’ve been very reliable for everything from KBO to studio shows to Drafts. Honestly, we tried to limit the number of people on planes as much as possible. There’s only one person getting on a plane for this event; everybody else has driven into the venue within a 10-hour drive. Obviously, our talent are located all over the country, so, luckily, we’re very comfortable with the home-commentary technology that we’ve created and are implementing here.”
Inside the Ballroom: Focus on the Ringside Experience
With no spectators on hand for the fight, Top Rank has surrounded the ring with a crowd of LED displays to up the excitement. The LED boards will feature a mix of stats and information, highlights and video clips, and social-media content.
All crew members are required to wear masks when onsite.“Some other live events that have been taking place in current stadiums or arenas have felt very hollow to me,” says Jacobs. “So we tried to focus on bringing everything right down to the ring. The LEDs are immediately outside the ring area, and everything is as tight as possible. You’re not pulling back and seeing a huge empty arena; you’re going to see what’s happening right at ring level.”
In the absence of crowd noise, Top Rank plans to pipe in an underbed of music throughout the event and is also experimenting with Hear Me Cheer, an app that allows fans to submit cheers to the live broadcast from their homes.
Says Jacobs, “I’m pretty confident that — with [the content] on the LED screens, music beds, possibly Hear Me Cheer, and a few other things — it will feel right to people watching at home. Hopefully, it’s entertaining and not overbearing, but the good news is, we’ve got another show Thursday so we can continue to make changes as we go.”
To cover the action, ESPN has deployed its standard 10-camera complement inside the ballroom (four of which are super-slo-mo units): three hard cameras, four cabled handhelds, one RF handheld, and two high-speed robos. The broadcaster has also deployed five Marshall POV cameras to capture various angles throughout the venue and has four EVS replay systems at its disposal.
“The big difference in terms of coverage is going to be that our ringside cameras are going to be on platforms 8 ft. back from a ring,” says Calcinari. “We’re being super careful to make sure, if anybody’s near the ring, they are well-protected. Our handheld camera operators will wear modified face shields, and we’ll distance everyone back from the ring by at least 8 ft.”
With no crowd noise to contend with, Calcinari also expects ESPN’s microphones to pick up plenty of all-access sound from inside the ring.
After tonight’s event, headlined by the Shakur Stevenson-Felix Caraballo main event, Top Rank Boxing returns to ESPN on Thursday and will continue to host events each Tuesday and Thursday throughout June (with additional fights potentially announced soon).
“It’s very exciting to be the first boxing back in action, and we couldn’t ask for better partners than ESPN,” says Jacobs. “At a certain point, we had to take a leap of faith that the Nevada State Athletic Commission was going to allow fights — which happened only 10 days ago — and that ESPN would put crews on the road again and that MGM would open, which happened only three days ago. All these things had to jell together, and it has been a huge team effort.”