NWSL Makes Broadcast-Network Debut on CBS With Full REMI Workflow
NWSL Challenge Cup games are being produced remotely from Vista’s Florida facility
The kickoff of the NWSL Challenge Cup on CBS last Saturday not only marked the return of live team sports in the U.S. but also was the first time an NWSL match has appeared on a broadcast network. To produce the 23 match broadcasts (the opener and Championship Game are airing on CBS, with all matches streamed on CBS All Access) from Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, UT, the league and CBS Sports have teamed with longtime NWSL partner Vista Worldlink to remotely produce the matches from its centralized broadcast facility in Dania Beach, FL.
“This was the first time CBS has ever done a REMI on their broadcast network, so it was new to a lot of people,” says Michael Cohen, executive producer, NWSL, “but we ramped up the level of production accordingly. There were two primary reasons that we chose to go REMI with a game of this magnitude: first, the technology was there to do it, and, second, we were dealing with medical-protocol issues related to allowing only a certain amount of people in the stadium. Since we have been using this technology and working with Vista for four years, we felt confident that we could do this not just at a digital level but a broadcast-network level.”
When the NWSL inked a multiyear deal with CBS Sports and Twitch in March, the plan was that matches streaming on All Access would be produced via Vista’s facility and those airing on CBS and CBSSN would be produced traditionally with a truck onsite.
However, when the coronavirus pandemic threw the season into disarray, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird and her team crafted the idea for the NWSL Challenge Cup. After briefly exploring deployment of a truck onsite for the opener and Championship Game on CBS, Cohen and company opted to produce all 23 games (down from 25 when Orlando Pride was forced to pull out) remotely via Vista.
“For this show and all our shows in general, our number-one priority is the health and safety of all the people working for CBS,” says Steve Karasik, VP, remote production, CBS Sports. “Of course, we have done other shows in this [REMI] fashion, but it certainly made sense in terms of health and safety to do it here. Largely, people didn’t have to fly on planes, and we were able to keep the [onsite] footprint to a minimum.”
Onsite in Utah: Minimal Crew But Plenty of Cameras
The camera complement at Zions Bank Stadium features six broadcast cameras (play-by-play, tight follow, low end zone, left 18-yard line, right 18-yard line, and handheld), two net cams, a beauty shot, and one ENG camera. Cohen says camera levels will continue to increase as the tournament gets close to the Championship Game.
In addition to reporter Marisa Pilla, who delivers live interviews and reports from the stadium throughout the tournament, approximately 16 crew members are onsite: camera operators, a video shader, A2 for audio, EICs, tech manager, utilities. A handful of alternate crewmembers are available in case someone tests positive for COVID-19.
NWSL Director, Broadcasting and Content, Dana Rubin oversees the onsite footprint and medical protocols for the production. All crew members who traveled to Utah were tested for coronavirus prior to their departure and once again on arrival. All individuals onsite are provided with masks and full PPE and are required to wear them at all times while at the venue. Quarantined housing has also been made available for the onsite staff.
“Jason Cohen [VP, remote technical operations] and the CBS Sports team have been very generous and shared with us their protocols for [PGA TOUR] golf, where they have [functional groups] isolated in colored zones,” Cohen explains. “We replicated that policy, so that anybody that was going to be close to the field or players or each other would be [assigned to] the red zone and all others are in the blue zone. It has been really great to have.”
In Florida: Announcers and the Production Team
A total of 18 transmission paths are sent from Utah to Vista’s production facility — via satellite uplink, IP, and bonded cellular to ensure redundancy — to handle camera feeds and comms. Vista also expanded its Dante IP audio/comms system for more flexibility for the larger NWSL shows.
“We already had the foundation built for this project with our central broadcast facility and the fact that we’ve done over 300 NWSL REMI games over the past three years,” notes Vista Worldlink President Josh Liemer. “However, we had to enhance it significantly. These games have more cameras than our usual [REMI shows], so we have a lot more paths coming back. With that in mind, we wanted to create as many redundancies — what I like to call belts and suspenders — as possible with satellite, IP, and bonded cellular to ensure that everything came back exactly as we needed.”
NWSL announcers Aly Wagner and Jenn Hildreth are socially distanced at Vista’s studio in Florida, calling the games off-tube and hosting pre/postgame and halftime content. They are presented in a two-box during the broadcast. Both are accustomed to calling games off monitors, having done so regularly during their work on Fox Sports’ 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup coverage.
“We try to replicate as best as we can the [in-stadium experience] for them,” says Cohen. “We have supplemented with additional camera feeds so they could see more of the action. For example, we piped in the high offside angles, so that Aly was always able to see the plays develop. When you’re calling off-monitor for a traditional world feed, you’re always subject to the look that the director is giving you, but, because Vista has all the camera feeds, they are able to give her all the tools she needs to see plays develop.”
Wagner and Hildreth are joined by the bulk of the production team: director, producer, AD, TD, A1, A2, graphics operator and font coordinator, replay operator, tech manager, EIC. Cohen and CBS Coordinating Producer Jonathan Segal, located at their respective homes, are participating in the productions via remote systems installed by Vista.
To ensure everyone’s safety In Vista’s control rooms, positions are separated by a plexiglass partition or set at least 6 ft. apart, and masks are mandated. In addition, Vista has instituted a stringent screening process for everyone entering the building and has nurse practitioners onsite doing regular temperature checks.
A unilateral feed for Twitch, which is live-streaming the tournament outside the U.S. and Canada, utilizes the same line-cut but is being produced out of a separate control room with separate announcers and graphics.
The Viewer Experience: Crowd Noise, New Graphics, Google Meets
As live sports return to stadiums largely without fans, every broadcaster is entertaining the concept of simulated crowd noise to create a more familiar experience for viewers.
“Crowd noise is something that we’ve been thinking about and looking into for a number of months leading up to this, says Karasik. “We’ve been watching how soccer [broadcasters] in Europe have been handling it, and I think some people, including me, might have been a little skeptical at first that it would sound hokey or cheesy or just be a distraction. But, after listening and watching those European soccer matches, we felt that it really did add something and made for a normal viewing experience for the viewer watching at home. So we decided that it was something that we wanted to pursue.”
Cohen and the CBS Sports operations team evaluated a number of vendors before selecting Salsa Sound, which provided simulated crowd noise for the opening games.
“At least for the first game, we didn’t want to make the audio too overbearing. We just wanted to provide something similar to that normal viewing and listening experience to fans at home,” says Karasik. “Thankfully, the Vista audio people in Florida knew soccer and knew when to push it a little bit when a player was approaching the net or if there was an injury or a close call or something like that. We were very pleased with the end result. The plan is to continue it for our NWSL coverage, and we will be looking at it for other soccer and football in the fall as well.”
While there aren’t any fans in the stands, the NWSL is still looking to feature them within its broadcasts. As part of a new partnership with Google, the NWLS is using Google Meet during the Challenge Cup to securely host virtual cheering sections in club’s home markets around the country and integrating these chats into the coverage.
CBS Sports’ in-house creative team also built out a brand-new graphics package and clock-and-score bug for the NWSL broadcasts.
“The main goal is to keep the look and feel of a CBS Sports telecast, while also representing the NWSL brand in a way they were excited about,” says Karasik. “Our graphic designers were extremely happy just to have something to work on since there hasn’t been live sports. And we were really happy with the final product.”
The NWSL Challenge Cup is streaming live on CBS All Access with encore presentations on CBS Sports Network through July 26. The Final will air on CBS on July 26 at 12:30 p.m. ET