CFP National Championship 2021: ESPN Ops Takes Over Hard Rock Stadium With Huge Compound, Comprehensive REMI Plan
The onsite team will work in a 270,000 sq. ft. space outside the venue
As one of ESPN’s most important properties, the College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship Game spurs increased innovation and ingenuity. Such events typically generate intuitive ideas, but the magnitude of the game and the curveball that is COVID-19 has intensified efforts in pushing limits. For tonight’s game at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the broadcaster is rolling out one of its biggest efforts for the title game, including a 270,000-sq.-ft. compound, 75 in-game and studio cameras, and heavy reliance on remote workflows.
“To support the operation and keep a socially distant area, we’ve had to come up with a unique plan here in Miami,” says John LaChance, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “We really transformed into a unique, one-of-a-kind broadcast compound.”
Outside Hard Rock: 13 Trucks, Detailed Broadcast Infrastructure
Major sports events normally call for a large television compound, but ESPN’s current setup next to Hard Rock Stadium is something totally different. COVID-19’s impact resulted in reduction of more than 150 onsite positions. Even so, 465 credentialed personnel are on hand for tonight’s game. With total control of the exterior loading docks, LaChance and his colleagues devised a detailed layout of each team’s location within the 270,000-sq.-ft. compound. An essential component to the operation is ensuring that everyone is healthy before they step foot in the area.
“This year’s national health crisis,” LaChance says, “required a strategy that features enhanced safety protocols, multiple rounds of testing, health screenings, heightened cleaning and sanitation standards, and ample distribution of PPE.”
The compound houses 13 mobile production units and ancillary support vehicles. Game Creek Video has a large presence for the production of the main telecast, College GameDay, and the MegaCast. Live Media Group’s Gracie is responsible for SEC Network’s live coverage, and a BSI truck is handling all RF audio and video elements. In addition, a 15,000-sq.-ft. office facility is adjacent to the compound.
The massive compound is providing a lot of firepower, but, to prepare for any production emergency, the team has developed a handful of backup plans to keep the linear and surrounding content on-air.
“There is complete redundancy for power, transmission, and infrastructure of the broadcast,” notes LaChance. “We published an eight-page document with all of the backup plans and what-if scenarios that we hope we’ll never have to execute, but it’s comforting to know that we’ll be prepared should the need arise.”
Camera Complement: Skycams, Bevy of Super-Slo-Mo Systems
A total of 75 cameras and other broadcast gear will be deployed to capture every play and sound of the title game. The broadcster is bringing back a dual Skycam system (the traditional one close to the field and a “hi-sky” version) to get a full look at the playing field. When not traversing the field, the AllCam will be positioned at an elevated vantage point for isolated shots of players and wider shots of plays. Up in the air, a fixed-wing aircraft and the Goodyear Blimp will transmit aerial views of the venue and the surrounding city.
At field level, ESPN is once again leveraging its extensive arsenal near the goal line and first-down line. A total of 28 POV cameras will be embedded within the front and rear PylonCam systems. Those in the back-line pylons will have pan, tilt, zoom functionality, which was introduced for last year’s Championship Game in New Orleans. There will be two styles of Marker Cam, one regular and one c360 with 180 degrees of movement, and two RF line-to-gain cameras will be on each sideline.
Capping the complement will be 26 specialty cameras: 11 Sony HDC-4300’s with super-slo-mo capability, 10 robos, three 4K cameras (two Sony HDC-4800’s and a Sony HDC-P43), and two RF handhelds on the field.
Bringing the total to 98, 23 cameras will cover College GameDay and shows on SEC Network.
“Even with the protective measures, this is still a marquee event,” says LaChance. “The company is going to make sure that we have the appropriate coverage.”
On the audio side, more than 100 microphones will be dispersed on the field and in the stands to give in-venue noise to fans watching at home.
Offsite Assistance: Remote Technologies Connect Miami and Bristol
As was done throughout the college football season, onsite operations will receive help from offsite staffers in Bristol, CT. LaChance and company have established a transmission plan with 70 total paths — 54 outbound and 16 inbound — and six dedicated data circuits. The structure will support both REMI and GREMI (remote graphics) applications.
“Our onsite presence is pretty different from how we’ve done this game in the past,” says Tommy Mitchell, operations manager, ESPN. “The viewers at home shouldn’t be able to tell a difference other than there are fewer fans in the stands.”
From a REMI perspective, more than 150 channels of replay will be processed on 12 EVS and two Evertz DreamCatcher machines. As for GREMI, there will be one Bristol-based Viz graphics operator and an additional Viz Libero telestration operator. In addition, a dedicated 500-Mbps circuit will support KVM GREMI control. And eight channels will be available for comms between onsite and offsite crews. Technologically, a 1-Gbps bidirectional file-transfer network will support virtualized EVS IPDirector and Avid remote-editing capabilities.
Remote workflows have been critical for ESPN production, but they have never been more vital than for production of the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. After analyst Kirk Herbstreit tested positive for COVID-19, the team constructed a broadcast booth inside his home to allow him to communicate with play-by-play commentator Chris Fowler in New Orleans’s Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Having worked on the framework since the beginning of the pandemic, remote operations was able to pivot on a few days’ notice and expand on the concept and custom-fit Herbstreit’s setup.
“We augmented [the technology] to give Kirk what he was looking for by adding more returns into his house and a closed-circuit replay device by using various transport methods,” says Brian Ristine, remote operations specialist, ESPN. “It’s definitely a source of pride, and the biggest part of that was seeing how many people came together, carried their part of the project, and executed it. They were able to perform their jobs under pressure at the highest level and made everything come together exactly how it should.”
Inside the MegaCast: 14 Alternative Viewing Options Bring Title Game to Life
The work of operations is to produce ESPN’s seventh edition of MegaCast. What started as an accompaniment to the main telecast in 2015 has become a project of its own. It has garnered so much attention and engagement that it was deployed during the recent NFL Wild Card Game between the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens.
“When we started this, we weren’t sure what the value would be,” said Ed Placey, senior coordinating producer, ESPN, about its evolution. “It’s satisfying to see what it has grown to become, not just on our college-football coverage but on a number of our prominent projects at ESPN.”
This year, MegaCast will implement 14 viewing options for neutral fans and those loyal to Ohio State or Alabama, including SkyCast, Film Room, Hometown Radio, and Command Center. Based on the circumstances of the year, MegaCast will forgo Field Pass because of limited field access, but, with each passing year, the production has taken a new shape based on popularity.
“You can’t explore things too aggressively when you have only one place to put something because not everything we do or have done has completely worked out,” Placey says. “It has become a great laboratory to explore things in a safe working space.”
On the operations end, LaChance made sure to communicate any advice or tips for the NFL crew.
“I think [the NFL crew] have a good handle on the MegaCast,” he said before Sunday’s production. “We shared any information that we had. We’ve had many years of doing this, so it has done a great job in preparing them.”
‘It Has Been a Marathon’: ESPN’s College Football Slate Took Planning, Cooperation
As with the NFL season, there were many uncertainties heading into the college football regular season and whether it would be completed. Even though some conferences canceled their seasons and many teams played only a handful of games, ESPN has made it to the final game of the year. The schedule could be summarized as a year of adaptation and a willingness to compromise for the sake of the crew, but now that the goal is only four quarters away, it’s almost time for the crew to celebrate a job well done.
“I think,” says Mitchell, “if you asked all of us in August, we all would have thought that we wouldn’t be here. We’ve jumped through so many hoops to do the job that we all love doing, but. when the game ends, we’ll all be about 10 ft. away from each other in the compound and let out the breath that we’ve been holding for the last four months.”