NBA Returns: MLSE Calls Dome Productions’ Parking Lot, Echo Unit Home for Raptors Coverage

With busy Toronto venues, finding a home for the remote production was a challenge

The NBA Champion Toronto Raptors return to the hardwood and their 2020 NBA season on Saturday night. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) in Toronto will be at the center of the TV-production efforts that will deliver the games to viewers via Sportsnet and The Sports Network (TSN) across Canada. And to say it has been a unique experience to even find a home for those productions is an understatement.

MLSE not is only the parent company of the Raptors, the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, and the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts, but also owns or operates Scotiabank Arena, BMO Field, Coca-Cola Coliseum, Ford Performance Centre, BMO Training Ground, and the OVO Athletic Centre. Simply put, it has a massive presence in Toronto, so, when it came time to find a home for the Raptors TV production, it would seem that finding space for facilities would not be difficult.

David August of MLSE says the team is ready to go for tomorrow’s resumption of the Raptors’ season.

But, according to MLSE Director of Technology David August, that was not to be the case. Scotiabank Arena is home to one of the NHL’s Hub Cities. The Coca-Cola Coliseum and BMO Field is being used as an NHL fitness facility and relaxation area. And the Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays, was expected to be in use for MLB games when Raptors production planning began.

“At the end of the day, we had to figure out what we could do,” says August. “We looked at our partners TSN and Sportsnet and other broadcast facilities. But everyone was at max capacity.”

The challenge led to talks with Dome Productions to find a solution.

“We asked about taking a portion of their parking lot at the Dome Productions field service shop,” says August. “They said yes and built us a broadcast compound in the parking lot. It has shore power, transmission services as this is where they build and service their trucks, and they had space to add facilities. It’s a bit like Lego blocks in that we could add things as we needed.”

The Dome truck at the core of the compound is Echo, a 53-ft. unit with a Grass Valley Kayenne switcher, a Calrec Sigma audio console, and RTS Adam intercom system (and EVS positions).

Dome Productions SVP/GM Mary Ellen Carlyle says the Dome engineering and distribution teams quickly developed and tested workflows that could get the job done. “The task became even more complicated when we found out that we could not increase our bandwidth between our warehouse and our NOC from 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps. The team came up with a solid solution and managed to make it work and within today’s COVID constraints.”

Echo is joined by Showcase, Dome’s 40-ft. unit that houses a 162-sq.-ft. studio with PTZ robotic cameras, a Riedel Bolero wireless intercom system, a Ross Carbonite or NewTek TriCaster switcher, and a small Mackie audio mixer.

“Showcase is where we do our play-by-play and color commentary as well as any on-camera appearances by talent,” says August. Dome B400 PT is home to the sideline reporter and radio.

The MLSE will call the Dome Production field shop home for the rest of the NBA season.

The team in Toronto will receive the feed from eight cameras in Orlando, routed through the NBA facility in Secaucus and then to the Scotiabank Are

The ample space in the Dome Productions parking lot enables easy social distancing.

na before being routed to the parking lot at Dome Productions’ staging area about 40 minutes from Toronto.

“Typically, we have just one signal leaving the arena, which is pretty simple and straightforward,” August explains. “But now we have eight video signals and multiple returns, so we’re trying to get everything in time and frame-accurate with required additional equipment on our end to bring it all together.”

The production team also has a dedicated iso camera, giving the team the flexibility to provide more-personalized coverage for the stories the talent are trying to tell.

“Our graphics designers are all working from home, but our CG operator is in the truck, as is EVS replay,” says August. “And there are no executive producers onsite as we want to minimize the number of people.”

Orlando Presence

As for a presence in Orlando, where the games are being played, MLSE has a camera operator who is following the Raptors for their documentary series.

“He can provide us with B-roll and behind-the-scenes footage for some of the segments we run during the broadcasts,” says August. “We ran a segment on life inside the bubble.”

One of the challenges in getting into the Orlando bubble is that it required 28 days of quarantine: 14 days in Fort Lauderdale after the flight from Canada and another 14 days once the team drove from Ft. Lauderdale to Orlando.

The team in Orlando plays a big part in providing information for the sideline reporter, who will be in Canada. The unique relationship MLSE has with the Raptors means that it is tightly aligned with the team’s personnel.

“Our reporter is in direct contact with the public-relations teams as well as some of our trainers,” says August. “The NBA is also providing us with access to only one interview camera, and we are allowed to use it only if the Raptors win.”

That’s one of the reasons MLSE has set up four separate laptops for Zoom calls. NBA press conferences with coaches and players are done via Zoom, and four laptops enable MLSE to Zoom in with multiple interview subjects at the same time. A large-screen monitor in Showcase allows the talent to see the Zoom calls with not only players and coaches but also guests and celebrities.

“When we’re doing a studio shot,” adds August, “you get the talent plus the monitor wall, so it’s a unique opportunity to create. And, we can bounce back and forth between the different Zoom feeds.”

Working in Bubbles

The production team will work in two separate bubbles inside the broadcast compound. Echo is one bubble, and Showcase and B400 are another, and no one is allowed to move between them.

“One of the challenges is, we are used to our production crew and talent collaborating and having camera meetings onsite,” says August. “Being in the parking lot, we can have a socially distanced production meeting.”

Each bubble has separate dining and washroom facilities. The goal is to minimize widespread transmission (if there is any virus around) and also make contact tracing easier. Everyone is also required to sign daily self-declaration forms and wear a mask at all times while inside a production facility. Positions in the trucks are separated by glass partitions, everyone is required to wipe down their stations, and someone also wipes down door handles, railings, etc.

“Personal equipment like handsets or on-air microphones get sanitized through UV and then are sealed in a bag and marked as clean,” says August. “Talent also have their own headset and have to operate the equipment on their own. When they leave, they are required to bag their headset and put it into a dirty bin that gets shipped back to Dome for sanitization and cleaning.”

Talent are also responsible for their own makeup, which August says is not too much of an issue given that most of them are used to applying their own makeup during road trips.

Like everyone else who has been getting back into production, August and the team are increasingly aware of how the changes are about more than just wearing a mask and social distancing. Setup takes longer, and troubleshooting and equipment repair are more complicated.

“You used to be able to have a rally cry if there was a problem to resolve it,” he points out, “but we can’t now, and we have to make sure our staffing levels are correct. That’s a conflict because you are also trying to keep staffing levels low, but we need extra staff because people can’t go all over the place.”

And, although the parking lot is “home,” the production team is connected to Canada’s Sportsnet, which is producing its pregame and halftime shows from its own broadcast plant.

“We’ve extended intercom to them and have camera tally from their studio to our broadcast truck,” says August. “We basically have that REMI on top of the REMI from Orlando, with their talent going to their own studios.”

Last season the Raptors captured not only the attention but the emotions of a nation as they won their first ever NBA championship.

“We have the only Canadian team playing in the NBA so they get a lot of national pride behind them, not just regional pride,” says August. “It’s great to see that we can influence our culture nationally and we celebrate the diversity of the team.”

With the NBA season back underway and with a unique playoff format the Raptors are again on the hunt for a title and another chance to celebrate diversity and another championship. And MLSE will be there every step of the way, even if it is from a parking lot.