Tupelo Honey Launches Onsite Resources and Remote Production for The Basketball Tournament on ESPN

With nearly a third of the 38-person team located at the arena, health and safety is a top priority

It’s full of good people, and it’s a family.”

From the point of view of John Servizzi, EVP, engineering and operations, Tupelo Honey, the togetherness of the entire sports-video–production community is the saving grace for broadcasting sports in the era of COVID-19. It’s also one of the reasons The Basketball Tournament (TBT) — a single-elimination tournament featuring top professionals, college alumni, and international players competing for $1 million — will be hitting the hardwood before any other professional basketball league in the U.S.

Rather than having operators underneath each basket, cameras have been pushed back to behind seating areas.

Starting on July 4, 24 teams will play in the sanitized “bubble” of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH, until one team is standing after the Championship Game on July 14. ESPN, in its seventh consecutive year as host broadcaster, is relying on Tupelo Honey for onsite services and a remote-production workflow from its satellite offices in Indianapolis.

Safety in the Bubble: COVID-19 Tests, Mandated Self-Quarantining
In a time when producing both canned and live content at home has become normalized, it’ll be a bit different to venture back into the outdoors for a large-scale endeavor. Inside this bubble, there will be strict rules to follow: a single positive test from an athlete, for example, will mean the whole team’s removal from the tournament. On the production end, the biggest challenge is ensuring the health and safety of 13 in-venue crew members.

“Our onsite team in Columbus is being treated as if they’re participants in the TBT,” Servizzi explains. “They have done a sensational job of building an incredible health and safety team, including Tom Hospel, medical director, PGA TOUR, and Tara Kirk Sell [assistant professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health], who was an Olympic silver medalist. They’re conducting a minimum of five COVID-19 tests on each participant prior to the first game and ongoing tests in the bubble between the Hyatt [Regency Columbus], the Nationwide Arena, and the Columbus Convention Center, where all of the teams are getting everything they need without having to leave the two-block radius.”

To abide by the protocols enforced by the TBT, the onsite team arrived on Monday, June 29 — a full five days prior to tipoff of the opening contest. In terms of safety precautions, the onsite requirements are comparable to those for ESPN’s Top Rank Boxing in Las Vegas, including mandatory self-quarantining and remaining inside the designated bubble for the full 10-day stay. For a majority of the 13 crew members, this will be nothing that they have ever experienced during their careers, but getting buy-in from employees hasn’t been difficult task.

“We communicated in advance with what the expectations were going to be because this is the normal that we’re in right now,” says Servizzi. “We didn’t have a tremendously difficult time crewing this because people were eager to get back and do the work that they love to do.”

Onsite: Nine Cameras, Sideline Reporter Claim Territory at Nationwide Arena
Although the production presence will be held to a minimum, the biggest gifts are sometimes wrapped in the smallest packages. In the compound, there will be an A2 and a handful of engineers, but, inside the venue, most notably, sideline reporter Jen Hale will be conducting player interviews with an added twist.

“When she’s interviewing players, those will be done via a boom pole so that there’s 6 ft. of separation between her and the player,” says Servizzi. “There will also be 6 ft. of separation between Jen and the audio person holding onto the boom pole.”

As for equipment, a total of 10 cameras (five standard and four POVs) will be used in the arena. One of the five will be a handheld, but, as with Hale and her audio operator, appropriate distance between operators will be implemented.

“It’s going to be a mid-court handheld that will be adequately distanced,” Servizzi adds. “We are not doing traditional baseline cameras since those have been moved back to low slash positions. We want to keep as many people out of those areas immediately under the basket as possible.”

Cameras have also been placed in low slash positions near the corners of the court.

Offsite in Indy: Production Trailers, On-Air Talent Highlight Large Remote Effort
In Indianapolis, the hybrid remote-production workflow has proved a success on multiple American Cornhole League (ACL) Pro Invitational Qualifiers. With more experience under their belt, Servizzi and company are raising the bar by taking on this multi-day project.

“Cornhole has been a nice proving ground for what we’re doing,” he says, “but this will be the largest remote production that we’ve taken on to this point. We’re really confident that we will pull this off.”

Despite not being onsite in Columbus, Tupelo Honey will follow strict safety guidelines within its facility. To limit in-person contact, seven on-air personalities throughout the entire tournament will be situated in remote locations: ESPN’s Seth Greenberg at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, CT, and play-by-play announcers and analysts Dan Dakich, Fran Fraschilla, Bob Rathbun, Matt Martucci, Chris Vosters, and Tim Scarborough in Indianapolis.

For the 17 staffers in two crews, the company is leveraging every available workspace on the property.

“In Indianapolis, we’re in the process of building two permanent, remote-control rooms to go along with the one that currently exists,” says Servizzi. “We’re using a couple of our web-only trucks to house a couple of people. We [also] have [an air-conditioned] shipping and receiving area [housing] temporary Evertz DreamCatcher replay suites. We are socially distancing everyone, but, based on the length of this event, we’re taking into account the amount of time that people are sitting in their chairs [in one room].”

To prevent potential cross-contamination, the crews will not have access to each other the facility. They will be split between the on-air–talent group and the production group.

“We have specific areas of the building that talent can be in and specific areas that production can be in,” he explains. “Those two groups, other than electronically or by phone, won’t be able to interact. It may be going to the extreme, but, for an event like this on ESPN and ESPN2, there are no corners that can be cut.”

In Bristol, ESPN will receive the feeds from Tupelo Honey and will forward the signal domestically as well as to more than 197 countries throughout Latin America, Europe, Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean for live and VOD consumption.

Similar to other events being produced during the pandemic, facial coverings are a must.

Lessons Learned: Producing a Multi-Day Event in a COVID-19 World
Even though COVID-19 cases continue to spike around the country, sports are making a gradual comeback. Given this, there is particular incentive to prioritize the safety of all crew members associated with these broadcasts, and, in a time when many aspects of this pandemic remain unknown, it’s vital that sports producers rely on their broadcast partner.

“The confidence that [TBT founder/CEO] Jon Mugar and his team have in us is very much appreciated, and our confidence in them is very high,” says Servizzi. “You’re going into a big event, so you’ve got to trust that the organizers of the event have your best interest in mind, and you’ve got to 100% commit to having their best interest in mind as well. Partnerships have never been more important than they are right now.”

Servizzi and the rest of his Tupelo Honey staff expect that, after the tournament, there will be some major takeaways that can help not only their team but the entire industry.

“Some of [these broadcasts are] going to be lessons learned that will make us better as an industry,” he says. “We are going to get so much better for having fought through this pandemic.”

The Round of 24 for The Basketball Tournament runs from 3 p.m. ET Saturday, July 4 through Sunday, July 5. Competitions will continue with the Round of 16 July 6-9 and Quarterfinals July 10-11. The contest wraps up with Semifinals on July 12 and the winner-take-all Final on Tuesday, July 14.