ESPN Ops Team Tips Off Challenging College Hoops Season With Focus on Safety, Efficiency

Innovation and flexibility are key in an effort facing myriad changes

What is expected to be the most challenging college basketball season in recent memory tipped off last week with a smattering of early tournaments, and the schedule will kick into high gear later this month. Although ESPN’s operations team is no stranger to the challenges of navigating the college basketball season — annually producing more than 1,200 games over seven months — the team has already faced an difficult series of challenges brought on by a list of canceled and postponed games.

“There is an all-hands-on-deck mentality amongst the operations team,” says Erin Orr, manager, remote operations, ESPN, “as the virus continues to spread throughout the world, especially headed into the winter months. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging moment in time, yet the operations team has derived innovation from necessity through advancements in workflows, skills, and routines.”

With that in mind, ESPN’s operations team has crafted a plan that focuses on keeping crews safe onsite and producing more games via REMI from control rooms in Bristol, CT; Charlotte, NC; and Wide World of Sports in Orlando.

“Never before has such great change surrounded ESPN’s college-basketball coverage,” adds Orr. “ESPN is committed to looking forward as a company and has supported the college-basketball operations team in designing new health and safety policies, business models, and technological efficiencies.”

Ramping Up REMI: ESPN Increases Remote Production, Focuses on Safety Onsite

During the 2020-21 season, the majority of ESPN’s college-basketball productions will be either REMIs or productions that use ACC and SEC schools’ on-campus control rooms. The standard of practice last season was about 10 full onsite productions per week; however, with increased safety protocols and a commitment to keeping staff safe and healthy, ESPN plans to have four or five onsite shows a week this season.

For onsite college-basketball productions, ESPN has instituted functional groups for its crews and requires all staff to wear masks and socially distance.

On a standard REMI production, the only positions onsite are audio, video, cameras, and operations. Talent and production personnel are handling their roles at home or in studios in Bristol, Charlotte, and Orlando. Announcers working from home leverage ESPN’s “Live From Home” production model, which has been implemented over the past eight months and is built around Zoom, TVU, and Unity intercom tools.

“The operations team [responsible for] getting college basketball on ESPN is made up of a network of groups,” says Orr. “However, the universal goal has always been simple: to get each game on-air in the safest and most efficient way possible. While the transparency of this goal is concrete, the means of finding efficiencies within the sport have morphed throughout time.”

For onsite crews, ESPN has instituted functional groups that give the team the ability to strategically plan for each crew member who works at a game. ESPN’s deliberate planning has created a more comprehensive understanding of onsite personnel and roles, which Orr says has facilitated management of each individual’s functional group.

“These restrictive groups mitigate unnecessary interactions onsite,” she notes, “which in turn allows each crew member to walk into each game knowing that their health and safety is number-one priority.”

COVID Uncertainty: Ops Team Faces Ultra-short Timelines

Orr adds that the biggest impact of the pandemic has been the onset of unknowns, which has resulted in initial operations planning now taking place just 10 days prior to each game.

“Throughout the team’s preseason preparation, the increase in communication within [the] operations [team], as well as with production, has been hugely important. The sport itself has been faced with a landscape of ever-changing information, and, as a result, the operations team aims at a moving target. The team has quickly learned that the plans laid yesterday immediately become a notion of the past.”

The operations team and its production, crewing, and health and safety partners have determined to be flexible in the face of myriad changes. With game cancellations and postponements expected to be a regularity throughout this season, the ops team is focused on keeping the lines of communication as strong as possible throughout ESPN.

“There is no manual on how to produce live sports during a global pandemic,” Orr points out, “so each group is learning and evolving with each curveball. Historically, the team has practiced adaptability in adjusting to the inevitable changes that come down the pipeline in a normal season. However, this season has inspired each group to raise the bar in terms of distributing immediate and concise communication amidst a field of ever-changing games.”

Unmanned Cameras: POVs, Robos Play Big Role in Game Coverage

Much time and energy has been spent individualizing the logistical planning for each venue’s unique health and safety protocols. In addition, some venues allow fans to attend while others do not, and the capacity varies from one venue to another. Given all the variations, Orr says, the most challenging aspect has been mapping out camera locations while ensuring that each area maintains proper social distance.

The biggest loss in game coverage has been the elimination of on-court handheld cameras, so ESPN will lean on unmanned cameras to capture much of the on-court action. Marshall POV cameras have been added to every production to be used on the baskets for various angles, and the use of robos has been increased.

“The main goal when interacting with each venue is to ensure that players, team staff, fans, and ESPN crew are in a safe environment,” says Orr. “Each venue has its own restrictions and COVID-19 protocols, and, in a majority of cases, added camera positions are not up for grabs. However, there have been increased opportunities to utilize unmanned cameras.”

The average camera complement is very fluid given the venues’ ability to accommodate ESPN’s health and safety protocols, but it averages two to five manned cameras. Typically, Fletcher above-the-rim (ATR) and below-the-rim (BTR) robos and potentially a midcourt camera are added for higher-profile games.

“Despite each venue’s individualized restrictions, the team has pushed the conventional idea of camera coverage outside of its confines, introducing never-before-seen creativity in regards to angles and technology,” says Orr. “The team has also been able to elevate workflow efficiencies that were set in place last season, as a means to stay on the cutting edge of the industry and bring them to an entirely new echelon.”

Ready for the Challenge: Ops Team Confident Despite Obstacles Ahead

In all, nearly 2,500 men’s college basketball games across 27 conferences are expected to be presented during the 2020-21 season by ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ABC, ESPNEWS, SEC Network, ACC Network, Big 12 Now on ESPN+, and Longhorn Network, as well as on digital platforms ESPN3, ESPN+, SEC Network+, and ACCNX. It’s a tall task for ESPN’s ops team but one Orr says team members are ready to face.

“The operations team is the anchor to the unknown story of college basketball, whether working in a pandemic or a typical season,” she says. “The team has incredible passion, responds with grace to the hourly changes, and communicates with transparency. On our hardest days, our goal is to make getting college basketball on ESPN look easy, and this outcome would not be achieved without the team’s adaptability and creativity.”

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