MLS Is Back Tournament: ESPN’s Host-Feed Production Features Unprecedented Tech Arsenal

The kickoff of the MLS Is Back Tournament tonight marks the return of major team-sports broadcasts in North America. ESPN is serving as host broadcaster for all 54 match broadcasts — which will be carried on a combination of ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision/TUDN in the U.S. and on TSN in Canada — and has rolled out a production complement unprecedented for MLS coverage.

Coverage of the three active playing fields at Disney’s Wide World of Sports (WWoS) complex in Orlando features a whopping 33 cameras per field, including a cable-suspended aerial system, drones, a jib cart, pole cams, goal cams, and POVs in the locker rooms. Other highlights include microphones embedded in the field and a 300-ft.-long blue chromakey wall surrounding the field for placement of virtual graphics in place of fans in the stands.

ESPN’s GoalCam is installed in all goals on all fields at Wide World of Sports for the MLS Is Back Tournament.

“From the get-go in partnering with MLS, the focus has been on technology,” says Michael Foss, senior director, ESPN. “These games are going to [feature] a level of technology that would rival any MLS Cup and probably exceed anything [deployed for MLS broadcasts] in the past.”

MLS Is Back With Plenty of Tech Firepower
The games will take place across three fields at WWoS: east-oriented Fields 16 and 17 will host night games (8 and 10:30 p.m. ET); west-oriented Field 19 will handle the handful of morning games (9 a.m.) on the slate. A fourth field is active as a backup venue and for team warmups.

ESPN is deploying 33 cameras at each of the three fields — the most it has ever used for an MLS production. Each field will be outfitted with an Omnicam4Sky four-cable suspended system and at least one drone camera (provided in-house by ESPN) for aerial shots rarely seen in North American soccer coverage.

“Each field is a slightly different, but 16 and 17 mirror each other and have very similar cameras,” says ESPN Remote Operations Manager Kim Bloomstone. “I think you’re going to see a lot of [angles] you’ve never seen before for MLS; I can’t remember a time when we ever came close to 33 cameras for [an MLS match]. It’s pretty exciting.”

Omnicam is also providing ESPN with mini-jib poles with high-speed–camera systems, which provide more flexibility than an ordinary jib and will be located near both goals on each field. ESPN has also mounted its GoalCam systems inside each goal to provide a look at the keeper and a slo-mo replay angle of the ball crossing the goal line (exclusive to ESPN-broadcast games).

ESPN’s operations team installs GoalCam at one of the three Wide World of Sports fields for the MLS Is Back Tournament.

For the first time in MLS history (according to ESPN), MLS Is Back Tournament matches will also feature a jib cart at each venue, providing unique sideline angles on the action.

To safely capture behind-the-scenes moments, ESPN has installed six POV cameras inside the modular locker-room facilities MLS has created at each field.

“Between the jib on a cart, the drones, the pole cams, the goalpost cameras, all the POVs, the Omnicam [aerial system], and everything else we’re sending out,” says Chris Calcinari, SVP, remote production operations, ESPN and ABC Sports. “I think you’re going to see a very unique presentation that has never been seen for MLS.”

Audio is also going to play a key role in match coverage, with embedded field mics scattered throughout each field. In addition, all aerial cameras will carry two microphones each.

“We have not deployed the embedded field mics during a regular-season MLS games,” says Foss. “It’s very rare in the U.S. to have any aerial cameras [on soccer] at all so we’ve never had mics on those. It’s a unique opportunity to get in close with players and get some audio that we would not be able to do in a stadium of 20,000 screaming fans. But, in this isolated manner, we anticipate being able to capture very unique and very dynamic sound.”

Calcinari adds, “You’re going to see a lot of a huge focus on audio here. In this era of COVID-19, where we’re being careful not to get too close to players and coaches, we’re focusing on extra mics around the benches and on the field. We are going to use everything we can to capture all the sounds of the coaches’ and players’ communication without having to put mics on everybody.”

Modified REMI: Production Team and Trucks in Orlando, Graphics and Talent at Home
ESPN has rolled out two pairs of F&F Productions mobile units to produce the tournament: GTX-19 A and GTX-17 B and GTX-16 A and B units. GTX-19A/GTX-17 B will be on hand for the duration of the tournament, serving as the primary trucks once the knockout round starts and all games shift to Field 17. Meanwhile, GTX-19 is supporting morning matches on Field 18 and will be on hand in case weather-delayed matches force simultaneous productions.

F&F Productions has rolled out two pairs of trucks to serve ESPN at the Wide World of Sports compound for the MLS Is Back Tournament.

“We don’t have any simultaneous games scheduled,” says Foss, “but, because of the weather and unpredictability and the large number of games, we have to be ready to support a game being rescheduled in the same time slot as another game. GTX-16 and GTX-19 can produce simultaneously from any of the three fields.”

ESPN is using a modified REMI (remote-integration) model for the MLS Is Back Tournament, with the production teams inside the trucks in Orlando responsible for creating a line-cut with replays and virtual graphics. The clean feed is backhauled to the production facility of that game’s broadcaster — ESPN in Bristol, CT; Fox in Los Angeles; Univision in Miami; TSN in Toronto — where line graphics, promotional items, preproduced features, studio segments, and other content are integrated into the telecast prior to distribution.

Announcers will call the games off-tube from their home facilities. ESPN announcers are located in Bristol, with Jon Champion and Taylor Twellman handling the majority of the match (Richard Mendez and Alex Pareja will be the lead Spanish-language commentary team on ESPN Deportes).

ESPN reporter Stefano Fusaro is onsite in Orlando to cover the tournament with a dedicated ENG crew and will also serve as sideline reporter for both English- and Spanish-language coverage.

ESPN Amps Up Infrastructure, Production Design at WWoS
With no fans in the stands for the tournament, the MLS and ESPN have erected a 300-ft.-long, 15-ft.-high blue chromakey wall around each field. Within broadcasts, this wall will appear to be a permanent structure displaying virtual advertising/sponsorship elements and other content throughout each game.

ESPN is producing live MLS matches from three fields at the WWoS complex.

In addition to the chromakey walls, the MLS and ESPN have worked to ensure that the telecasts from WWoS match the broadcast quality that viewers have come to expect. Besides bringing in supplemental power and extensive lighting gear for the productions, ESPN has rolled out four 125-ft. JLG lifts at each of the three fields to support the Omnicam4Sky aerial systems.

“These fields were built to support youth sports, not a broadcast of this magnitude, so we brought in supplemental power, lighting, and infrastructure,” says Foss. “I think the biggest logistical challenge has been in production design: how do we create the level of quality and experience that our fans have come to expect in an environment that wasn’t built to support broadcast?”

At the Core of It All: Safety Remains Top Priority
While ESPN has pulled out all the technological stops for its MLS coverage in Orlando, maintaining the health and safety of its crew remains the broadcaster’s top priority. With that in mind, ESPN has instituted strict health and safety protocols at WWoS.

In addition to requiring that masks be worn and social distancing be practiced in the compound at all times, ESPN’s crew of roughly 160 (125 crew members, 35 vendors) has been split into multi-tiered functional groups in an effort to limit exposure and reduce contact whenever possible. The practice also9 makes contact tracing more efficient, should anyone be infected.

“This is certainly one of the hardest projects I’ve worked on since I’ve been at ESPN because of all the safety measures and the enormous size of our crew, which is working in shifts,” says Bloomstone. “But we understand how important it is to get sports going again, and we’re committed to making sure that this goes well — not only that it gets off the ground but, more important, that it stays off the ground.”

Reporter Stefano Fusaro is onsite to deliver live reports from Orlando, while all other talent is calling live-match action from the broadcast center.

The majority of ESPN’s onsite crew drove from within a 10-hour radius to minimize air travel and ensure that they could return home quickly and safely should they need to. In accordance with MLS policy, a small number of ESPN personnel who have on-field access are restricted to the “MLS bubble” at Walt Disney World. Although other crew are able to enter and exit the bubble each day, Calcinari adds, ESPN’s internal COVID-19 planning committee has created a health and safety document that details best practices for all ESPN personnel — both inside and outside the compound.

“Without a doubt,” he says, “the biggest challenge has been the safety piece. We spent a lot of time making sure we are creating a safe environment onsite, where people feel confident to be able to come to work day in and day out with the virus surrounding us. We’re good at making television. We’re good at planning events. But we’re not health experts, so we’re learning every day to make sure that we take care of our crew.”

Looking Ahead: NBA, MLB, WNBA and More on the Horizon
While the MLS Is Back Tournament marks a watershed moment in the return of live sports in the U.S., ESPN’s operations team has plenty more on its plate. The broadcaster will team with Turner Sports to serve as co-host broadcasters when the NBA season resumes at WWoS at the end of this month, with plans to park trucks in Orlando next week. In addition, Top Rank Boxing is off and running in Las Vegas, and Major League Baseball, WNBA, the PGA Championship, and much more will be on ESPN’s programming slate in the coming weeks.

“I don’t think I can overstate how incredibly important and exciting this is,” says Calcinari, “not only for our department but for our company and the greater Disney organization. Simply put, having sports back is huge.

“From a remote operations perspective,” he continues, “we have people literally working around the clock at this point preparing for everything that’s coming. We have a really incredible team that has been able to adjust to this situation on the fly. The dedication that you see in situations like this is really remarkable, and I couldn’t be prouder of how our team is working through so many challenges all at once.”