2021 Executive Reflections: NBA’s Steve Hellmuth on How Unity of Purpose and Creative Partnerships Were Key to NBA Restart

When the pandemic hit the U.S. full force in March 2020, sports production was forced to accelerate technology changes that were already in motion but not expected to happen for several years. Health and safety came to the forefront of production concerns at the same time as engineers were racing to enable talent and tech to work from their homes. As always, the production industry came together as a family to deliver sports television to a public that was hungry for live entertainment. This editorial by Steve Hellmuth, Executive Vice President, Media Operations, NBA, is the latest in a series of “2021 Reflections” from SVG’s 2021 Sports Production Yearbook in which sports-production leaders look back on a year unlike any other and offer projections for the year ahead.

NBA EVP of Media Ops Steve Hellmuth at the 2019 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, where much of the innovation on display at the NBA Restart in Orlando was first developed.

With Adam Silver and the Players Association leading the way and Disney providing a venue at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, along with a schedule of games, the NBA broadcasting community — including ESPN, TNT, NBA TV, and the regional sports networks, supported by our important vendors and technology providers — plotted the restart of the NBA season. The NBA greatly benefited from the decade’s-long partnership with ESPN and Turner Sports, as well as the integration of the NBA’s in-house LP&E (Live Production and Entertainment) unit. A working relationship forged over many All-Star Games and Finals allowed the team to ideate and build the studios at the NBA arenas in Orlando.

The medical success of “The Bubble” came from unity of purpose. We were all united by respect and a focus on keeping each other healthy.

Testing was axiomatic, but most important, as Dr. Leroy Sims, the NBA doctor in charge of The Bubble reminded us frequently, stick with the big prevention fundamentals: wear a mask, maintain distance, eat outdoors only, keep your hands away from your face, and use good judgment always.

From my notebook of April 2, 2020, the guiding principles for media in the restart:

  • Innovative Game Production
  • Personalization
  • Community
  • Arena Experience

Much of the innovation on display at the Restart in Orlando was developed at the Summer League in Las Vegas with ESPN and Turner. While ESPN and Turner produced games for air, the NBA maintained a full production truck for innovation (a place to fail) staffed with NBA RSN production personnel; much of the content did not go to air.

ESPN’s Eddie Okuno and Turner Sports’ Chris Brown were present and engaged, and together we developed a rail-cam, experimented with the court-side cameras, established new, better slash-camera locations, and robotic camera placements.

The initial testing on virtual placement that resulted in the TNT on-court shot clock was conducted at the Summer League and helped guide the extensive and successful use of virtual signage in Orlando.

At the Summer League, the NBA engineering under the direction of Dave Barry learned to install and operate the HSAN to accommodate the needs for the operation of the Replay Center, content creation, and program transmission. In Orlando, the NBA used encoding gear from three NBA arenas to create 66 paths from Orlando to Secaucus, NJ with 18 return paths.

The NBA was virtually connected via a 255×255 router onsite integrated with the Secaucus router via Evertz Magnum. This onsite router, dubbed the IBC (International Broadcast Center), distributed all signals in the venue for Turner Sports and ESPN as well (with great assistance from NEP engineering).

The in-arena atmosphere was conceived by Carlton Myers of NBA LPE to represent a dynamic basketball theater with the designated home-team game production director in the lead, controlling the videoboards, the music, the fan prompts, the in-venue announcer, and the crowd. The court was surrounded with four speaker clusters that brought an in-venue audio experience to the players, the players responded well, asking the LPE crew to turn it up. This worked very well for broadcast, with the mixers using in-venue ambient and direct sources to create a mix that protected the players.

The Michelob Ultra Fan Zone featured fans virtually on 17-foot- high video walls, which was made possible by delivering low-latency feeds to fans who signed up for the experience. It was difficult, but when former President Obama joined a group of Legends for the first game of the Finals, we knew we had arrived.

All are on board for a new season — with the cadence of a regular season we look forward to again connecting with NBA fans to bring the game to them anywhere and on any device.

This piece was originally published as part of the “Reflections 2020” section in the 2021 SVG Sports Production Yearbook, which you can read in full HERE.

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