NFL Draft 2021: NFL Media Combines Lessons From 2020 Virtual Draft With Onsite Presence for ‘Best of Both Worlds’
Robo cameras, additional trucks reflect emphasis on crew safety
After a virtual draft that VP/Head of Media Operations Dave Shaw calls NFL Media’s most challenging operation to date, the league’s media arm will return to a semblance of normalcy tonight in Cleveland for the opening night of the 2021 NFL Draft. With a full production and crew onsite, the event will mark a bookend of sorts to the pandemic era, which began with a trailblazing decentralized production of last year’s Draft.
Throughout the next three days, even with trucks and crew onsite, NFL Media will leverage the knowledge and workflows developed for the 2020 Virtual Draft.
“I wouldn’t call it a hybrid [production] as much as I would say it’s the best of both worlds,” says Shaw. “We’re taking advantage of what we learned last year with the [Virtual Draft] and also taking advantage of the many years [of onsite coverage] before that. Having a combination of the onsite and at-home live [workflows] this year makes things more complex, but it also makes the show a lot more dynamic. And I think we’re giving viewers a whole new level of coverage.”
In the Compound: NFL Media Mixes Onsite, REMI Production
NFL Media has rolled out Game Creek Video’s Encore A, B, and C mobile units for the Draft production. With crews socially distanced in the trucks, HFI Flex 11 is also on hand to accommodate overflow. In addition, three EVS replay operators and all graphics operators are located at NFL Media’s Culver City, CA, Broadcast Center operating EVS servers inside Encore remotely.
“It feels very much like we’re getting back to our standard production model but also incorporating everything about [remote production] that we learned last year,” says Bjorn Estlund, senior manager, remote technical operations, NFL Media. “For a show like the Draft with the amount of elements, the precise timing, and all the movement, we’re going to get a much better show with the production [team] here onsite.”
This year, NFL Media is producing its NFL Network show onsite in 1080p to align with co-broadcast ESPN and Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment Productions, who is managing the in-house show and has set up a TOC in Cleveland to manage feeds for the respective broadcasts on NFL Network, ESPN, and ABC. In all, NFL Media is sharing 120 feeds with Van Wagner and ESPN through an IP gateway provided by Game Creek Video.
“We made a decision early on to have Van Wagner handle the technical compound and bring in all those feeds,” says Shaw. “We learned from what we did last year and decided to create a central [TOC], and we went to Van Wagner to build the infrastructure in Cleveland because they are handling the in-house production and were one of our three call centers last year. That gave us all the confidence in the world that they could handle it.”
Estlund is onsite, along with Senior Director, Media Operations, Adam Acone, overseeing the operation in Cleveland.
NFL Media Director, Studio Operations, Jessica Lee is also onsite in Cleveland, helping manage all the feeds for the NFL Media group in the 34 fiber muxes that feed Culver for live shows and disaster recovery (DR), as well as the five fiber muxes to NFL Films to support Good Morning Football (which airs live from its New York studio all week) and provide a second layer of DR.
NFL Media COVID-Compliance Manager Casey McKee has led the effort onsite safety protocols for the Draft production. All 236 onsite personnel (including production, crew, talent, executives, digital media, and photo) were COVID-tested prior to arriving in Cleveland and are PCR-tested every other day while onsite. In addition, all crew members maintain social distancing, wear Kinexon contact tracers, and are required to wear masks/PPE at all times.
“Safety is our number-one concern and priority one,” says Estlund. “Fortunately, we’ve had a year to work on this and to come as close to perfecting [safety measures] as we can.”
On the Set: Ultra-Wide Desks, Dynamicam in the Green Room, Plenty of Robos
This year’s Draft will take place across iconic Downtown Cleveland locations: FirstEnergy Stadium, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the Great Lakes Science Center, with the main Draft Theater set against the backdrop of Lake Erie.
NFL Media has erected five sets and brought its full roster of on-air talent to Cleveland for its live coverage. The two primary sets — located inside the Draft Theater and outside overlooking the festivities — feature 24-ft.-wide desks to socially distance the talent. NFL Network also has sets at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame plaza for NFL Draft Red Carpet, in a suite at FirstEnergy Stadium, and at Great Lakes Science Center (the contingency location in case of inclement weather).
“With the sets growing in order to socially distance, so have the size of our actual stages,” says Estlund. “Our main sets are 24 ft. across to allow for four people, but you also need space for the jib and the build-up cameras, so that means the stage has to get bigger, too. We have to expand everything to cover that distance between talent on the set.”
NFL Media has 48 cameras dedicated specifically to the NFL Network show and is also sharing several with ESPN. The production will deploy 11 robotic cameras — five more than in a typical year — to reduce the number of manned cameras onsite and accommodate social distancing. BSI is also on hand, providing seven RF cameras.
NFL Media has also worked with JITACAM to rig two small-scale four-point aerial systems: one over the green room and one over the theater set., Estlund describes the system, branded Dynamicam by JITACAM, as “essentially a miniature Skycam” rigged to allows the camera to operate at a very low ceiling height. The system will be especially useful in this year’s reconfigured green room, which has been redesigned to accommodate players and their families at social distance.
“The four-point system is a great way to be able to give you a view of the families and feel like you’re a part of the overall situation,” says Shaw. “The reconfigured green room allows all the families to be [present], but everybody is distanced and separated by glass partitions. I think it’s a great way to have the families onsite even during a pandemic.”
As both NFL Media and ESPN look to minimize the onsite headcount and enforce strict safety protocols, the two networks are sharing more cameras and resources than ever.
“We’ve all agreed to work together in our coverage more than ever,” says Estlund. “In years past, there may have been more RF cameras in the green room, for example, but, this year, we’ve got more sharing and rotation. When we were strategizing this, we agreed that we don’t need to have competing cameras. Let’s just make sure we both can get to what’s most important — the players and prospects, the head coaches and the GMs — and work together to get it done.
Across the Country: Bringing 48 Prospects and 32 Clubs Into the Show
With only a limited number of prospects onsite, NFL Media is leveraging many of the technologies and workflows from last year to bring in live feeds of players across the country. In addition to the 13 prospects onsite, NFL Media worked with VWSE Productions to bring in live feeds from the homes of 48 remote prospects and 32 NFL team facilities. All prospect and team feeds are routed through VWSE’s TOC in Cleveland and distributed to NFL Network, ESPN, and the in-house show.
“Our setup [for prospects] this year is similar to last year’s,” says Shaw, “though arguably more challenging because we have a hybrid of both remote prospects and the 13 that are onsite. Having a tech hub that Van Wagner oversees that’s right next to the truck compounds has been huge.”
The NFL also partnered with Freeman to build and distribute the remote camera kits to the 48 prospects, which include Panasonic PTZ cameras (upgraded from iPhone 11’s last year) to allow more control and better resolution. The Panasonic PTZ camera serves two applications: as an always-on camera prior to the player’s being picked and as an interview camera after the selection.
At each of the 32 team facilities, Van Wagner has provided two cameras: a PTZ unit for two-way interviews with coaches/GMs and an iPhone that serves as the always-on camera capturing reactions in each team’s Draft rooms. The PTZ cameras will also be on hand for Day 3 picks, which will be made remotely from the team’s facilities (a handful of picks will take place in other locations, including an Atlanta Falcons pick from a military base in Guam).
While NFL Media’s coverage of this year’s Draft will span the country, it also marks the league’s return to large-scale onsite productions — something Estlund is extremely grateful for.
“There’s such a feeling of excitement here,” he says. “We consider our core crew to be family. When we all showed up and saw those faces that we haven’t seen in person for the last year, it felt like getting the band back together. You can feel the excitement to be working together again — and we’re doing it safely and distanced. It’s just a fantastic feeling, and we’re looking forward to a great show that feels like something close to normal.”