On the Hardwood: Denver Nuggets Repurpose RSN Broadcast With Some In-Venue Flavor
Ball Arena’s videoboard taps into the feed on Altitude Sports & Entertainment
The doldrums of 2020 may be in the past, but 2021 is still presenting challenges to in-venue production teams. Now out of the Orlando bubble, NBA organizations are hosting games in their home arenas and navigating the continuing difficulties of the pandemic. Like SVG’s At the Ballpark and On the Gridiron series, On the Hardwood will take a look the hardships, creative ideas, and teamwork of NBA franchises.
The west has never been wilder than in the 2020-21 NBA season. On the court, the Lakers, Clippers, Suns, and others are vying for the top spot. The Nuggets can be included in that mix, but, off the court, the franchise faces even more formidable challenges in the control room. To overcome them, the in-venue staff has devised a simplified plan that includes a videoboard show built on top of the linear broadcast feed.
“We’re very excited to have basketball back, but our videoboard show might be one of the biggest challenges that we have right now,” says Steve Johnston, executive producer/director, game presentation, Denver Nuggets. “Due to the restrictions that we’re under, we’re limited to the number of people that we can have in our arena.”
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Creating Buzz in Ball Arena: Show Taps Into TV Broadcast, Fake Crowd Noise
Like a majority of NBA venues, Denver’s Ball Arena will be devoid of fans through 11 regular-season games. As the pandemic continues to prevent patrons from attending games, the production team is doing its best to bring the juice for the team every night. The task is quite difficult to do with a slimmed-down onsite crew, so, rather than take members away from the front bench, the videoboard is tapping into the television signal of Altitude Sports & Entertainment, the team’s regional sports network.
“We have a Ross Xpressions operator who’s able to run playback [over the TV feed],” says Johnston. “We’re starting off really bare-bones, so graphics are our biggest capability at the moment.”
Regulations are so stringent that the team’s exuberant mascot, Rocky, isn’t permitted in the building. Without his lively dunks off a trampoline or a ladder, climbing to the highest point of the arena from the floor, or other antics, there’s a big hole in the videoboard show.
“For anyone who [has known] Denver Nuggets basketball over the last 25 years,” Johnston adds, “he’s a huge part of the brand. We’ll hopefully get him back in here soon because we think there’s a lot we can do there with fun cutaways and things like that.”
Adding responsibilities to the control room, the NBA has renewed its commitment to fabricated crowd sound in all 29 arenas. As it did in the Orlando bubble last season, the league is once again partnering with Firehouse Productions to develop the in-venue soundtrack. The sound prompts will be played in the arena as well as in the linear broadcast for national games airing on ESPN and TNT. Whether it’s for the players on the court or the viewer at home, crowd noise is elevating the production to a higher level of authenticity.
“I was watching one of the games on TNT, and it was the best I’ve heard it sound on a broadcast,” says Johnston. “The audio made a huge difference, and the broadcasters seem to be dialed-in. Firehouse put us through some great training, so we have some great operators in the control room.”
Inside the Control Room: Safety Plan Includes Lessons From the Bubble, Rigorous Protocols
With games being played in home arenas, the NBA is taking extra precautions to curb the spread of COVID-19. Both the NFL and MLB enforced a strict tiering system for in-venue personnel, and the NBA is following suit with its own form of restricted access.
Johnston and his control-room team are confined to their own space while others —the four or five audio technicians, Game Presentation Manager and In-Game Host Kerry Anne Keogh, DJ Austin Pawelka — are in a separate, “yellow” zone. Many of the techniques were adopted in the bubble and are being implemented at each team’s venue.
“Our PA Announcer Kyle Speller happened to be in the bubble in Orlando and actually went right through the NBA Finals,” Johnston says. “When he and Director, Game Presentation, Craig Dzaman are courtside, they’re designated in the red zone. It’s pretty easy to socially distance since there are few people in the building, but everyone on my crew is taking it seriously.”
Besides the tiered zones, other protocols are observed: pregame meals eaten at separate tables, control-room areas sectioned off, mandatory testing and screening.
Juggling Two Sports: Blended Duties for Nuggets and Avalanche
Unlike many NFL and MLB teams who play in their own venue, Ball Arena is operated by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE). Johnston helms the in-venue not only for the Nuggets but also for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche. Since the puck was dropped on the NHL season last night, he has been tasked with planning for an in-venue strategy for two sports at once.
“We’re used to juggling a lot since the seasons typically start three weeks to a month apart,” he says. “If anything, having the Nuggets start first is helpful for the Avalanche [production]. We all know the building, and a lot of the protocols and crowd-sweetening elements will be similar. We feel ahead of the game in some ways.”
Since both teams are under the KSE umbrella, operations and production teams came together to develop a plan that would cover both the Nuggets and the Avalanche.
“At Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, we always work as a team,” Johnston explains. “We prioritized what our needs and wants were, but the game-presentation side had to take a step back and say to our digital and TV teams,
‘We’re here to help and do whatever we can for you guys.’”
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Despite the small crew and the obstacles that lay in the way, Nuggets fans watching at home and the players who go to work on the court are still treated to a somewhat familiar game-day environment. When fans eventually return to Ball Arena, it’ll be pleasant to see faces in the stands, but, in the meantime, Johnston and company are doing admirable work to the best of their abilities.
“It’s all about providing a home-court advantage,” he says. “It has always been an awesome team effort. [The crew] were chomping at the bit to get back in here, and we’re all adjusting to the new norm.”
The Nuggets will play three straight games at Ball Arena: tonight vs. the Golden State Warriors at 10 p.m. ET; Sunday, Jan. 17 vs. the Utah Jazz at 8 p.m.; and Tuesday, Jan. 19 vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder at 9 p.m.