NWSL Challenge Cup Final Brings Full Production Resources Back Onsite

CBS offers another major national spotlight for the domestic women’s soccer league

In a year that has seen the popularity of women’s sports grow by leaps and bounds, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has a big date lined up this weekend in Portland, OR.

The 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Final from Providence Park in Portland airs on CBS at 1 p.m. ET on May 8. (Photo Courtesy: Michael Cohen, NWSL)

The NWSL Challenge Cup will crown its champion on Saturday when Portland Thorns FC hosts Gotham FC at Providence Park (1 p.m. ET, CBS). Landing the Challenge Cup Final on broadcast television for the second straight year is another massive opportunity for the league, one that the NWSL is meeting head on by bringing its entire production crew onsite for a show befitting a championship event.

“Anytime you get the chance to have this kind of exposure for a league on a platform like CBS, you understand that this is a very big opportunity,” says NWSL Executive Producer Michael Cohen. “You want to be very careful to produce the show for soccer fans but understand that you’re going to get a larger audience. Will we be talking about the stars on the field? Of course. Some of the things might be repetitive for the hardcore soccer fan, but we feel it’s important for the larger audience to know that we’ve got some of the top players in the world playing on this stage.”

In the truck, match director Mike Roth (right) and technical director George Mikla run through shots during set day on Friday. (Photo Courtesy: Michael Cohen, NWSL)

A year ago, the NWSL became the first U.S. sports league to complete a full competition following the coronavirus outbreak. The 2020 Challenge Cup Final (Houston-Chicago) was a resounding television success: the CBS broadcast averaged a 0.44 rating and 653,000 viewers, making it the highest-rated and most-watched telecast in the league’s history. Compared with the 2019 NWSL final (which aired on ESPN), the 2020 Challenge Cup Final logged a 293% viewership increase.

This NWSL Challenge Cup has a quite different feel from the 2020 edition and is a positive reflection of the direction in which live-sports-television production may be going. Although last year’s final in Utah capped a competition produced in a bubble environment via an at-home workflow with few onsite resources and personnel, Saturday’s production — done in collaboration and communication with the production team at CBS Sports — caps a competition in which all matches were played in home stadiums.

Saturday’s final will be produced by a crew and facilities onsite at Providence Park, in a stark departure from the at-home productions achieved across the industry since the initial COVID-19 outbreak. NWSL Director, Media, Dana Rubin played a critical role in organizing the entire operation, adjusting to the challenges that come from not knowing where the final would be located until just four days ago.

Graphics operator Michelle Shanks (left) and associate producer Seth Shore run through elements for Saturday’s NWSL Challenge Cup Final. (Photo Courtesy: Michael Cohen, NWSL)

“The league is allowing us to jump in with both feet,” says Cohen. “They are doing all of the things well to protect it, as is the network. It’s being done as well as you possible can do it considering the circumstances.”

The live-production crew will be working from NEP ND4 Double Eagle mobile unit, which houses a Grass Valley Kayenne K frame production switcher and a Calrec Apollo digital audio console with Bluefin 2 high-density signal processing.

The game will be covered by a total of 12 cameras, including a pair of super-slo-mos. Two cameras will be shooting at 100X speed; six other hard cameras, at 86X speed. Every camera unit will be tied to a replay device.

Executive Producer Michael Cohen (standing) and match producer Sharni Yerke meet during set day prior to Saturday’s NWSL Challenge Cup Final, which will air on CBS at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Photo Courtesy: Michael Cohen, NWSL)

All crew members with field access received COVID-19 tests prior to set day on Friday morning. The full crew, comprising about 20 traveling members supplemented by local freelancers from the Portland and Seattle areas, will arrive at the stadium at 3 a.m. PT for the 10 a.m. local start time.

The front bench will feature producer Sharni Yerke and director Mike Roth. The entire on-camera team is also onsite, with JP Dellacamera on play-by-play, Aly Wagner serving as analyst, and Marisa Pilla working the sidelines.

According to Cohen, much of the traveling crew is a core group that has worked on the NWSL since its time on Lifetime (2017-18) and ESPN (2019). On top of the that, for some of the crew, this is the first event they’ve been onsite for in quite some time, making it a special experience for all involved.

“It feels great,” says Cohen. “Any one of my fellow remote-production people will tell you: when you’re on the road, you’re on the road with your family. We’re really excited to be getting the group back together.”

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