NBC Sports Engages PLL Fans With Player-to-Analyst Comms, Social-Media Integration, Onscreen Betting Lines

PLL is first outdoor pro lacrosse league to leverage legalized gambling

On Saturday, July 25, the Premier Lacrosse League began its two-week Championship Series at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, UT. The fans are watching from home, but NBC Sports is bringing them down to the field level with back-and-forth communications between commentators and players, coverage via untethered aerial drone, interactivity on multiple social-media platforms, sports-betting lines, and more — all complicated by processes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is an onsite crew that is following protocols of NBC Universal and the PLL,” says Dan Steir, SVP, production/senior coordinating producer, NBC Sports. “We have five above-the-line production staffers, and our partner, Tupelo Honey, is handling the below-the-line personnel for the event.”

At-Home Connection: Player Talk, Untethered Drone Coverage Bring Fans Closer

High above the field, an aerial drone is capturing footage for the league’s social media channels as well as pre-recorded broadcast material from a different vantage point.

For an organization that’s only in its second season, the PLL is far from a sophomore slump in this 2020 campaign. While some fans are still finding allegiance to their respective teams, the league is making a concerted effort to connect with those watching from home.

From the outset, the most notable feature being deployed is talent’s conversations with players during the game. Starting in the league’s inaugural season last year via a relationship with comms provider Gubser & Schnakenberg, fans are able to hear instant reactions to and real-time analysis of some of the game’s pivotal moments.

“Last year, an attack would score, and our announcer was talking to him 10 seconds later on the field,” says Steir. “We’re looking to expand on that. We’ll have three players wired for every game, and we’ll be able to talk to them.”

In addition to these conversations with play-by-play commentator Paul Burmeister, analyst Ryan Boyle, and sideline reporter Todd Harris, other players and coaches are miked to provide soundbites throughout the telecast. For even more in-game insights, Harris is conducting midgame sideline interviews with players after shifts are completed.

The standard camera complement for each game is headed by an untethered drone in the sky. Without fans in the stands, the drone is able to fly above the field of play as well as high above the stadium to provide scenic aerial shots and stunning replays on the broadcast and on the league’s social media channels.

Besides the drone and several hard cameras with super-slow-motion capture, another manned device, one that is not standard for lacrosse, is receiving a more important and amplified this year in Utah. “We’re utilizing a handheld Steadicam that will get the viewer much closer to the action,” Steir explains. “We used it for selected games in 2019, but we’ll have it for the entire tournament this year.”

Further Participation: Social Media, Betting Lines Improve Spectator Interactivity

If an inside look into how the game is played isn’t enough, NBC Sports and the league are giving fans other opportunities to engage with these telecasts. Instead of virtual fans (the league sold 400 of 500 cardboard cutouts two days before the start of the tournament), NBC Sports is leveraging Tagboard, a company specializing in on-air graphics that can seamlessly use real-time video, to allow fans to be a part of the broadcasts.

Driving the graphics are videos submitted on social media through Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. For high-profile fans, like New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, the broadcast is dedicating a small box on the left- or right-hand side of the screen and overlaying the action.

Fans at home will be entertained with another production wrinkle, which was added just two weeks ago after the league signed a deal to make DraftKings the official sports-betting partner of the PLL Championship Series, which is the first outdoor professional lacrosse league to leverage legalized gambling.

“The PLL has embraced the incorporation of sports gambling,” says Steir. “During the broadcast, we’ll give viewers the money line, but, as the game goes on, we’ll revisit it based on the storyline. As the tournament goes on, we’re likely to present the over/under and spreads as well.”

Small-Size Tech: Goalpost Mics, Locker-Room POVs Highlight Game Sights and Sounds

Along with communication with miked players, NBC Sports is also interviewing players on the sideline during the game.

Along with the bevy of technology used to engage fans and make them a focal point of each broadcast, other small technological tidbits are being deployed. With limited field access, NBC Sports is doing what it can to highlight the action from every possible angle.

From an overall audio standpoint, the broadcaster is pumping in a certain amount of fake crowd noise while the stands are empty. To add an extra layer of auricular flavor, a handful of microphones are planted around and on the playing surface to spotlight the natural sounds of the sport.

“We’re looking to incorporate natural sounds a bit more than we did last year,” says Steir. “We’re placing microphones in and around the field, including the netting and goalposts, to enhance our crowd noise.”

On the visual end, behind-the-curtain views are being offered to viewers in addition to the standard broadcast. Inside each team’s locker rooms, up to four POV cameras are strategically placed throughout the area to showcase operations during pre/postgame and halftime.

Setup in Utah: COVID-19 Protocols Keep Production Crew Safe in the Bubble

As with other professional leagues operating within a bubble (MLS in Orlando; WNBA in Bradenton, FL; the recently completed The Basketball Tournament in Columbus, OH), onsite employees are observing stringent health and safety guidelines.

Special guests are being interviewed from home, including New England Patriots Head coach and avid lacrosse fan Bill Belichick (in box).

The process of making sure every member of the crew is cleared is an extensive one. Prior to reaching the bubble in Utah, NBC personnel self-quarantined at their own residences for 14 days. They were administered a COVID-19 test on Saturday, July 18, a full four days before heading west. Arriving at the bubble, they were swabbed once more and asked to self-quarantine in their hotel room until tests came back negative. Even in the relative safety of the bubble, protocols continue to be followed for the duration of the event.

“The plan is similar to other bubbles,” says Steir. “They’re staying in their rooms, and, if they’re not in their rooms, they are at the venue. Meals will be available at the venue for all of our personnel. And, if they order something that could be delivered to the hotel, it’s through selected food outlets. It’s easy to be strict and stringent on Day 1, but we’re going to be the same way on Day 14.”

Within the bubble, the production team will work inside trucks supplied by Salt Lake City-based Pure Mobile Productions. All feeds will run through these mobile production units, which house three four-channel EVS replay servers.

Back to Basics: Condensed Season Doesn’t Change Production Philosophy

Four days into this competition, some of the main storylines — Will the Whipsnakes repeat as league champions? How will teams react to playing in this environment? — are beginning to slowly unfold. Despite the outside noise of operating in a COVID-19 world, Stier and company are committed to production fundamentals until the tournament’s end.

“Our job is to be consistent by covering significant and controversial moments and game-winning goals at an elite level, and I don’t think that changes,” Steir says. “Our producer, Matt Borzello, has done a phenomenal job with managing and leading the project, but we’ve been all working together to pull off this really engaging event.”

Group play of the Premier Lacrosse League Championship Series continues with a matchup between the Redwoods and Chaos at 11 p.m. ET on Wednesday, July 29. The championship match will occur Sunday, Aug. 9 at 12:30 p.m. on NBC.