NBC Sports’ Belmont Stakes Production Embraces At-Home Model for Crew Safety

The broadcaster is leveraging its NEWBERT remote flypack, Stamford broadcast center

Though describing Saturday’s 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes as “perhaps the biggest sports event this country has seen since the pandemic hit,” longtime NBC Sports Coordinating Producer Rob Hyland will not be on hand at the track for the production. Instead, with the health and safety of the crew as top priority, NBC Sports Group is keeping its onsite presence as lean as possible, with a just a small crew and its proprietary NEWBERT remote flypack onsite in Elmont, NY. Hyland and the production team will be in a control room at NBC Sports Group’s International Broadcast Center in Stamford, CT, producing the new first leg of horse racing’s 2020 Triple Crown.

“Our production and engineering teams have completely reimagined this year’s coverage,” says Hyland, who is producing his 25th Triple Crown race. “Working very closely with our partners at NYRA [New York Racing Association] for additional camera-coverage support, we’re confident that the viewer at home will have a very good experience on Saturday.”

Combo Approach: REMI and Actual At-Home
With health and safety in mind, NBC has reduced the onsite crew from 200 last year to roughly 50 this year. The limited presence at Belmont Park comprises camera operators, audio techs, a handful of technical/ops support personnel, reporters Britney Eurton and Kenny Rice, and race caller Larry Collmus.

Meanwhile, host Mike Tirico and analyst Randy Moss will be in Stamford, and analyst Jerry Bailey and handicapper Eddie Olczyk will report live from their homes in Florida and Chicago, respectively. In addition, Hyland, director Pierre Moossa, and the TD, A1, graphics ops, EVS replay ops, and video shaders will be working from Stamford. NBC Sports editors will be working from home, receiving footage from onsite via file-transfer and delivering elements to Stamford.

Keith Kice (left) and Tim Dekime on hand at Belmont Park

To make this REMI/at-home workflow possible, NBC has deployed its proprietary NEWBERT remote flypack. Regularly used for Golf Channel’s onsite studio shows, the flypack has been deployed for numerous international NBC Sports productions, including multiple Olympics and several golf majors. Comprising six large equipment cases, it arrived at the track on Thursday and will be responsible for transmitting all camera/audio feeds to Stamford.

“Just a few months ago,” says Tim Dekime, VP, operations, NBC Sports Group, “we were planning the [Triple Crown races] and planned on going to do Belmont like we always do with trucks and a big [presence]. Then, COVID-19 hit, and we had to come up with a different way of doing things, and we’re excited about it. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how we’re going to be doing remotes in many cases moving forward.”

NBC will be using its Golf Channel transmission package to handle encoding and muxing of the 16 feeds (a mix of NBC’s and NYRA’s cameras) going to Stamford. NBC is also deploying three Haivision encoders to send non–time-critical video to Stamford.

“It’s exciting for all of us to finally get back to work because we’ve been pretty stir-crazy for the last three months,” says Keith Kice, technical manager, NBC Sports Group. “It’s just great to start doing sports again. Sports is really our national pastime, and we’re happy be part of something that brings a sense of normalcy.”

Covering the Track: NYRA Shares the Camera Load
In addition to seven of its own dedicated cameras, NBC has partnered with NYRA to provide live coverage of Saturday’s races. The horse-racing association’s production team, which covers racing at the track almost daily, has nearly two dozen cameras. During NBC’s broadcast window, Moosa and Hyland will have a direct comms link with the NYRA truck and director, who will essentially produce a subcut for NBC’s telecast.

A limited number of NBC Sports technical personnel are onsite at Belmont Park.

“It’s going to be a coordinated effort between [NYRA’s] production-control room and ours to supplement our coverage to make a seven-camera show feel like a 30-camera show,” says Hyland.

NBC’s septet of cameras — two hard cams, one cabled mini, two RFs (supplied by BSI), an aerial, and a 6-ft. jib — will cover both the winners circle and the paddock area. In addition, NBC has deployed four POV cams throughout the grounds.

“From the time the horses are on the track until the winning horse crosses the finish line, it’s not going to look any different,” notes Hyland. “[It may be different on the] postproduction side, but the actual coverage of the sporting event should look no different, other than the fact that there are no fans in attendance.”

The jib will be used for the majority of post-race interviews with jockeys to allow reporters to stay socially distanced. In addition, the NYRA outrider will be wearing a microphone and a high-powered radio that will play NBC’s broadcast, allowing Tirico and company to speak with the winning jockey after the race.

The No-Fans Factor: Enhanced On-Track Audio, Virtual Watch Parties
On the audio side, NBC is planning to mike three jockeys and integrate the feeds into the overall race mix. An NBC tech will provide instructions and hand off a microphone to each jockey’s valet, who will be responsible for attaching it to the rider. Additional mics will be deployed at the starting gate and down the home stretch to capture on-track sound.

NBC Sports’ NEWBERT system sends all camera/audio feeds to the broadcast center in Stamford, CT.

“Obviously, without 90,000 screaming fans, we think the race sounds [from the miked jockeys] will significantly enhance the broadcast,” says Hyland. “I think, as long as venues are crowdless, listening in on a trainer’s final instructions to a jockey could be great access that we’ve never had before; we’ve always showcased the hundreds of thousands of people in attendance. It will hopefully create a more intimate experience for the viewer at home.”

Although there won’t be fans physically at the track, NBC has partnered with the Breeders’ Cup and America’s Best Racing to create virtual watch parties around the country. According to Hyland, these fans will be integrated into the broadcast as a “mosaic visual presentation.” In addition, NBC will have access to primary owners of all the horses.

“Without fans there,” says Hyland, “we wanted to bring the fans to the broadcast any way we could. And that’s how we plan on doing it this weekend.”

Safety First: Testing, Distancing, Cross-Training
With safety as the prime concern, all personnel — in Stamford and onsite — will abide by social-distancing protocols established by both NBC Sports and NYRA. Everybody arriving at Belmont Park must pass a temperature test before entering. In addition, NBC has distributed full PPE kits to all crew members, including masks, sanitizing equipment, and thermometers. Before arriving at the compound each day, each onsite crew member must fill out a daily questionnaire via the Medcor app.

The NEWBERT remote flypack has become a major tool in NBC Sports Group’s technical arsenal in recent years.

“There’s, of course, a lot of focus on the safety for our crew,” says Dekime. “NBC has done an unbelievable job informing people about the safety protocols — and they are extensive.”

In addition, the NBC ops team is taking additional measures to ensure redundancy should anyone test positive.

“We’re doing a lot more cross-training to make sure you know what the person sitting next to you actually does,” Kice explains. “If [someone wakes] up in the morning with a temperature and can’t come to work, the show must still go on, [and] we have to fill that void. Cross-training is going to be one of the biggest changes on the technical side as we work our way through this [process].”

NBC will offer more than six hours of live horse racing on Saturday, beginning at 9 a.m. ET with the Royal Meeting from Ascot, UK. Belmont Stakes coverage will begin at 2:45 p.m.