On the Pitch: Philadelphia Union Enjoy First Full Season With HDR Videoboard at Subaru Park
After a banner year, the club looks to build on 2020’s success
The past 10 months have been a whirlwind for Major League Soccer. After last summer’s MLS Is Back Tournament in the Orlando bubble and the eventual return to empty home stadiums, the attendance of some clubs in the league are returning to pre-pandemic levels. Much like At the Ballpark, On the Gridiron, On the Hardwood, and At the Rink, SVG’s On the Pitch takes you into the control room with in-venue crews to understand what their job is like before, during, and after the official’s whistle is blown.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philadelphia Union made headlines as the first soccer-specific stadium in Major League Soccer to erect an HDR-capable videoboard. When the world turned upside down and the season progressed, the club’s production staff made the best of a troubling situation by hosting a numbr of in-person events and working toward a stellar in-venue show that has laid the groundwork for this season at Subaru Park.
“In March 2020, we were slated to open up our new control room with new videoboards, and, three days before our home opener, the whole world shuts down, and we’re sitting at home,” says Carl Mandell, senior director, broadcast and entertainment, Philadelphia Union. “Fast forward to this year, and now we’re ready to go. It was a pretty big year.”
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A Wild 2020: HDR-Board Installation, Watch Parties, Broadcast-Only Audio
On the banks of the Delaware River, the Union has made tremendous strides to make the in-venue show one of the best experiences in MLS. The largest, most technological transformation was the installation of the 3,440-sq.-ft. HDR videoboard above the Chester End section of the park. The ribbon boards also were upgraded and, paired with the LED behemoth, have turned the venue into a glistening jewel.
Usually, with new workflows, teams must go straight into a packed schedule of home games without a chance to become acclimated. However, the postponement of the season and eventual resumption of play in Orlando during the summer gave Mandell and his team time to get accustomed to the new tools.
“It was the best-case scenario for us,” he says. “Most people get two or three weeks, and then you’re learning on the fly. But we had a year of trial and error. If we didn’t have that practice last year to understand what we had, we wouldn’t be set up for success this year.”
Besides having a new videoboard to work with, the staff embarked on a new avenue of productions during the MLS Is Back Tournament. Since they weren’t allowed to accompany the squad in the Orlando bubble, they were able to put the new technology to use with a handful of in-person watch parties. With the game broadcast on the videoboard, around 200 season-ticket holders gathered in sectioned-off pods on the pitch to watch their favorite team play.
“Even though we had a very small crew,” Mandell explains, “we treated [the watch parties] as if the team was playing on the field at home. We built out our intro video and a bunch of graphics and stat packages. And, since we had a delayed feed out on the boards, we knew what was going to happen inside the control room.”
A unique addition to production during the pandemic was the use of fake crowd sound. Many MLS clubs implemented a fabricated soundtrack both in the venue and on the linear broadcast. Philadelphia Union team manager Jim Curtin, though, was against the use of in-venue noise. So Mandell focused on pumping out the sound only on the televised product while leaving Subaru Park silent. Other organizations in professional sports leveraged archive noises from previous games or videogames like FIFA, but the Union opted to select a fan from the Sons of Ben, the team’s independent supporters group, to provide authentic noise from a sound booth.
“When [the fan] felt that he needed to react [to a play], he would hit the buttons, and our team in the truck would manage the audio levels,” Mandell says. “We gave him a whole sound board to incorporate different chants.”
A New Year: Crew Shows Off in Front of Live Fans
“It has been a crawl, walk, run process, and I think people are excited to see the large images and data that we’re displaying on our boards,” adds Mandell. “We’ve been able to staff out all of our cameras, put our cameras back into the nets, and upconvert a lot of the SDR feeds to our board.”
For the home opener vs. Inter Miami on April 24, the staff had a couple of extra elements up their sleeve, including the unveiling of the 2020 Supporters’ Shield that the club won prior to the postseason. As the season progresses, the production team is looking to increase the complexity of the show.
“Most of our games are back-loaded to August and September, so we’re going to bring back some of our alumni nights,” says Mandell. “As restrictions change, our game presentation will be different each week.”
The Ones Who Get It Done: Shoutout to Philadelphia Union’s Production Team
Not many clubs have undergone as many changes as the Philadelphia Union. Achieving its goals takes an entire team working in unison. Along with Mandell, people like Motion Graphics Designer Sumner Gilliam have made this past year, and the upcoming campaign, possible.
“Our core group is instrumental to everything that we’ve done [so far],” says Mandell. “My team is putting in all of the hard work behind the scenes.”
After a road match against Atlanta United, the Philadelphia Union return to Subaru Park to host the Columbus Crew on Wednesday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET.