NBA Returns: Massive Compound, COVID Protocols Complicate Intercom System

Imagine running three NBA All-Star Games a day every day for month — with social distancing

The enclosed NBA ecosystem (aka the NBA Bubble) in Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando is complicated. In this truncated season, each of 22 teams plays eight seeding games over two weeks to determine playoff standings, with a possible play-in series between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds of each conference if the ninth seed is within four games of the eighth.

The comms master-control area covers communications among the three basketball courts and the broadcast compound.

Even more complex is the broadcast infrastructure for that. ESPN, TNT, and the league have built an Olympics-scaled compound around three indoor venues: The Arena, HP Fieldhouse, and Visa Athletic Center. The Arena, home to the main national-telecast court and the Conference Finals and NBA Finals, features 20-plus manned cameras, more than 60 robotic cameras, and scores of microphones connected to the WWoS’s more than 27,000 ft. of fiber.

But talk to crew members running the complex’s intercom systems, and they’ll say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

A Riedel system, provided by Firehouse Productions, comprises nine Artist-64 frames, two Artist-32 frames, and one Artist-128 frame, all networked over fiber and connecting the three courts to the broadcast compound’s six production trucks supporting both TV networks simultaneously. End-user devices deployed include 113 master panels, 57 C3 beltpacks, 116 Bolero wireless beltpacks, and 186 analog four-wire circuits for a total of 490 active ports of Riedel hardware.

The design of the intercom system, according to Firehouse Productions VP Mark Dittmar, came out of discussions around The Arena’s unique PA system, which Firehouse also designed and that focuses faux crowd and other prerecorded effects sounds on the court, and the expanding mandate for the NBA season.

“One court became two courts, two courts became three courts,” he explains. “Each venue is treated as a separate show at its core. We then added a global layer so that all venues can work together. This was critical since any change to the audio, video, or lighting in one venue would need to be replicated in the other venues.”

Safety First

A few of the 116 Riedel Bolero wireless beltpacks in use for the NBA season at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex

Even as the huge event came together, the COVID-19 safety protocols further complicated things.

“You can’t actually walk up to someone and tap them on the shoulder and have a conversation with them,” says Dittmar. “That’s literally breaking protocol. “So our NBA All-Star [Game] model for comms, which is an incredibly large show, initially became the model for this. People that wouldn’t normally be on comms now have PL [partyline connectivity] to increase the social distancing.”

In addition, every night, all hardware and headsets are sanitized to kill any viruses and are sealed in a plastic bag until their next use.

The process of building the comms network had to take place within the confines of those safety protocols, as does its use. A dozen comms technicians across the three venues are divided into color-coded teams, which have to stay separate. A team bringing a cable to an area another is working in can’t simply hand the cable over directly, says Dittmar. Instead, protocol calls for the first team’s dropping the wire and letting the next team pick it up after a certain amount of time.

“No one has ever dealt with that before. But those are the things that we’re up against. Luis [Espinal, senior RF/PL technician, Firehouse Productions] can’t just walk out into the compound and check on a truck interface. He has to relay any info to the yellow team and have them deal with it. If one person tests positive, the whole team gets pulled out until we have negative tests.”

Referee Interaction

Masks are mandatory, part of a stringent health protocol for comm technicians.

One of the challenges for intercoms in this singular series is how referees interact with the scorers’ tables, which are separated from the courts by a full-length plexiglass barrier to prevent airborne viral transmission, blocking direct verbal communication between referees and scorers. The solution is for all court officials to wear omnidirectional lavalier mics, which are fed into the comms system. That audio is controlled by an announce box that the referees can activate themselves. When scorers at the table need to talk to the referees, they use the intercom to talk through Fostex speakers positioned on the courtside of the glass.

Espinal, who monitors the comms from a master-control room in the WWoS complex, had to program a number of logic functions into the Riedel Artist system to control the referee mics. Private conversations can be kept isolated when necessary: for instance, when officials need to consult with the NBA replay team in Secaucus, NJ. The intercom headset they use automatically mutes the lavalier microphones and the speakers for the duration of the conversation.

“There was a lot of extra programming, a lot of ingenuity had to go into it, just so [a scorer could say,] ‘Hey, that was a three,’” says Vinny Siniscal, who is managing RF for Firehouse Productions.

The nature of the production meant that its comms would be a hybrid of wired and wireless. The Riedel frames are on a ring-type topology, within and between venues, which Espinal describes as “small islands [that are] part of a big group. In terms of wireless and hardwired, it’s dedicated per venue, because we are not letting users carry around things between locations, [to prevent] cross-contamination.”

At master control, Luis Espinal oversees the entire comms ecosystem installed by Firehouse Productions.

Meanwhile, the wireless aspect of the system is networked using Luminex 14R and 26i Gigicore Ethernet switches. The Riedel Bolero system consists of a 14-drop, fully redundant spoke-and-hub Luminex network with 40 edge devices and 128 multicast flows.

“The Bolero network is a global network,” Siniscal explains. “The way it’s distributed is that the load gets distributed between two Luminex 26i switches, a main and a backup. Each venue works on its own in terms of a Bolero network for the switches, [and] we limited the amount of hops to two.”

To say the comms for the NBA season are complicated is, he notes, an understatement. “We took what we’ve done before and went two times and then 2½ [times that] to get to the scale we’re at now.”