UFC’s IP-Based, State-of-the-Art Broadcast-Ops Center Goes Live at UFC Apex Despite Pandemic
Originally designed for Contender Series, the facility handles major events, remote production
Even before the pandemic, UFC’s Craig Borsari and Tim O’Toole knew they had a monumental task ahead of them: launching an IP-based, state-of-the-art broadcast-operations center for the new UFC Apex facility that would fuel the company’s production efforts for generations to come. Despite a global pandemic that wreaked havoc on the buildout schedule and the UFC event calendar, the UFC Apex BOC is now live and driving all UFC event productions.
“It’s an incredible accomplishment that we were able to not only pull this off but do it in the midst of the pandemic,” says Borsari, EVP, operations and production, UFC. “We’ve already executed some major events and delivered content around the globe out of the facility. We feel that this is exactly what the company needs and our production unit needs for the future. It allows us to have full autonomy and full customization in the way we produce our content. We’re incredibly proud of the entire team and excited for what the future holds.”
Early Development: Committing to IP for the Future
UFC Apex, which officially opened in June 2019, is a 130,000-sq.-ft. production facility in Las Vegas that contains more than 50,000 sq. ft. of production space and more than 70,000 sq. ft. of office space. Originally designed to serve as the home of Dana White’s Contender Series, the building features a full arena for fights and multiple sound stages to produce additional content.
“This facility was always designed to host live events — specifically, the UFC Contender Series fights — but it morphed into something much bigger as we started to understand how we might be able to utilize the hundreds of square feet in different ways,” says Borsari. “We knew we wanted to future-proof the facility so that we could produce a wide variety of productions — including live content, studio content, and REMI content — and support whatever UFC might build out on the property in the future.”
With that in mind, UFC teamed up with systems integrator BeckTV to design and build a fully IP-based 4K-capable (it’s currently running at 1080p) broadcast-operations center based on SMPTE ST 2110 that would serve as the technical hub for the entire Apex facility.
“Whatever we decide to build out in the future, IP allows us to be able to scale up for anything that might come along,” says O’Toole, SVP, event production, UFC. “Instead of investing in other infrastructure throughout the property, we can produce anything and everything out of the Apex BOC. Scalability was the primary reason behind our decision to go IP, but we also wanted stay on the forefront of technology by going 1080p and having the capability to go 4K when the time comes.”
The Apex BOC won’t just serve as the home for productions in Vegas, however. It will also play a vital role in remote productions from UFC events around the world (when they resume after the pandemic subsides).
“We’re a global tour, and we currently travel our core crew to those locations,” says O’Toole. “We just spent five weeks on Fight Island, and we traveled a large crew from the U.S. to Abu Dhabi. In the not too distant future, [instead of spending] five weeks in a far-off location, the core crew could just come to Apex and produce the show from Las Vegas instead of traveling them halfway across the world.”
Pandemic Impact: Remote Commissioning, Safety Protocols Keep Integration Rolling
UFC and BeckTV had just begin commissioning equipment when the coronavirus pandemic shut down development for several weeks. However, after pausing technical integration and commissioning on March 13 because of the pandemic, UFC and BeckTV restarted work in early May following Federal Coronavirus Guidelines, instituting rigorous testing, and commissioning equipment remotely whenever possible.
“The challenge was that building out an IP facility is obviously going to have its share of bugs, even if you have your whole team onsite,” says O’Toole. “But, when you’re encountering really complex issues with NMOS and PTP and things like that, working remotely makes it that much more of a challenge. But Beck deserves a lot of credit for sticking with this, and they were a great group to work with.”
By the time the BOC officially went live in September (it was originally set to open in early May), Apex had become the de facto home of all UFC events because the pandemic had shut down access to arenas across the country. This also added to the delay in the BOC launch, because UFC and BeckTV had to up the technological ante to accommodate the needs of major UFC fights compared with the smaller Contender Series events.
“We had to scale up to a major UFC-level event that typically is in a 15,000-seat arena,” O’Toole notes. “Obviously, that’s not what Apex was designed for originally. Even though we’re not having fans, a UFC show is significantly bigger than a Contender show. And so there was a lot more that we had to put on Beck’s shoulders to get us to the level of a major UFC event.”
Inside the BOC: An IP-Based Wonderland
The SMPTE ST 2110 facility is built around an Evertz EXE 2.0-26 25GE IP router, which allows up to 520 multiview images (via a 570IPG-X19-25G high-density IP gateway), at its core.
The BOC comprises three production-control rooms (PCRs), two audio-production rooms, two replay rooms, and a shading room (plus FOH booth and announce booth). PCR-A produces the world-feed/English broadcast; PCR-D and PCR-E handle Spanish and Portuguese feeds, respectively, which were previously produced at The Switch in Burbank, CA. The facility is also designed to allow a mobile unit to pull up to the truck dock (as NEP’s NCP VII did for events at Apex prior to the BOC launch) and interconnect easily with the BOC when ancillary facilities are necessary for larger events.
The main control room features an 8M/E Ross Video Acuity switcher; the other two PCRs feature Ross Video Graphite switchers with Carbonite Black 2S 2M/E panels. In addition, the FOH booth features a Carbonite Ultra switcher.
As for the audio-production rooms, the main show uses a Lawo MC2-56MKIII audio console with 64 faders (and with RAVENNA and Dante for audio I/O in the AES67 format) and the secondary room features a Lawo MC2-36 MKIII with 24 faders.
On the replay front, the BOC is outfitted with three EVS XT-VIA 12-channel replay systems with dual LSM Connect option, as well as EVS XS Via SpotBox four-channel, IP Director, XHub Via, and four XTAccess Gigabit Gateway servers.
Covering the action inside the arena is a full complement of Ikegami cameras outfitted with Fujinon lenses, including four UHK-430/CF 4K systems, three UHK-430 high-frame-rate systems (coming in 2021), and three UHL-43 box cameras (for JITA, CamMate Hot Head, and Steadicam systems). Two Panasonic AW-UE150KPJ 4K 60p PTZ cameras (with AW-RP150GJ remote camera controller) are also installed at Apex.
Other key gear includes Vizrt Viz Trio graphics in PCR-A and Ross Xpression graphics in the other two PCRs, a 160-port IHSE Draco Tera KVM matrix switch, an Image Video TSI-4000 Tally System, and a pair of ODIN Omneo Digital Intercom frames (32-port matrix).
Transmission for all UFC events at Apex is handled in-house using MediaKind encoders/decoders and dual fiber services wired into the building by AT&T Global Video Service and Telstra Global Media Network. UFC has also enlisted longtime transmission partner PSSI to oversee master-control ops out of PSSI’s international teleport in Pittsburgh.
“We knew we had the space to pull off the physical executions of the productions,” O’Toole explains, “but we also wanted to be mindful of how we built out the technical infrastructure to support it. We also wanted to be able to support whatever we might build out in the future across the 76 acres of property around our headquarters. We feel like we’ve done that with the facilities we’ve built here.”
In terms of safety protocols, every control room has a plexiglass partition between seats, all staffers are required to wear a mask, and temperatures checks are mandatory upon arrival. UFC has also instituted a sophisticated wristband system to limit staffers to certain zones and ensure that they have been tested for COVID prior to the production.
Looking Ahead: More Fights, R&D, Third-Party Events, Original Programming
The main control room went live for a UFC Fight Night event on Sept. 19, and, for the first time, all three control rooms were operating simultaneously on Oct. 31. In addition to hosting UFC PPVs, UFC Fight Night, and Contender Series events, Apex will serve as the home of season 29 of The Ultimate Fighter when production begins early next year. And UFC plans to use Apex as a third-party venue to host sports competitions, concerts, stage shows, esports tournaments, and more.
“We’re already seeing a rise in interest, and I think, in the next six months, we’re going to see a lot more interest in using the facility,” says Borsari. “Also, because of the health and safety measures and weekly testing we’ve put in place here, we can offer a full service to execute all the facets of what a production in 2020 looks like, which is not just the technical execution but also making sure that your crew and talent are safe.”
As the beating heart of the UFC universe, O’Toole notes, Apex will serve as an invaluable research-and-development plant for future technology and content opportunities.
“I’m most excited about how Apex is going to be an R&D lab for us,” he says. “We’re now able to bring in equipment and technology to test it out. And, with our studio, we will be able to create a lot more programming, especially for UFC Fight Pass, that we just didn’t have the luxury of creating before. We’ve got a great creative staff that has a lot of great ideas, and now they can start implementing those ideas. You’re going to see a lot bigger, better, and brighter things coming out of the UFC with Apex at our disposal.”
Check out UFC Apex when it hosts UFC Fight Night: Felder vs Dos Anjos tomorrow night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+ and the UFC 255 PPV on Saturday, Nov. 21.