College Hoops Tip-Off 2021: ESPN Set To Produce 6,000+ Men’s and Women’s Basketball Games

Workflows will be a mix of onsite truck-based, fully remote REMI, and the hybrid REMCO

When it comes to sheer volume in sports production, it simply doesn’t get much bigger than ESPN’s men’s and women’s college basketball slate. ESPN networks and digital platforms will present more than more than 6,000 matchups during the 2021-22 season, including 1,200 linear-TV broadcasts from 43 states over the next six months.

“College basketball is the king of volume,” says Rex Arends, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “And with that, the logistics can be extremely challenging at times. But we’re excited to tip off a great season and to provide so much content for college-basketball fans. At ESPN, our motto is to serve sports fans anytime, anywhere. And with basketball that’s all the time, everywhere.”

ESPN’s 2021-22 schedule of more than 3,400 men’s college basketball games tipped off last night with the start of the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. The broadcaster has rolled out a high-end production complement for the season-opening tournament, including a SupraCam aerial, Above the Rim (ATR) and SlamCam robos on the baskets, a Vizrt Libero analysis system, and multiple super-slo-mo handhelds.

Meanwhile, on the women’s hoops side, ESPN will feature 330 games across its linear networks and an additional 2,800-plus games ESPN+ and other streaming outlets.

A Return to Normalcy (Kind Of)

After a 2020-21 season fraught with pandemic-related challenges, ESPN’s ops and production teams are primed to return to a semblance of normalcy this year. Beginning with the season tip-off last night, ESPN will have more of its traditional camera positions this season, including standard slash positions and handhelds under the basket, which were largely banned by safety protocols last season.

“It was challenging to get through a year without having those looks,” says Arends. “But we’re excited to have it back. We’re hoping for something that resembles more of a normal season and to put a great product on the air for the fans.”

From an operations standpoint, ESPN college basketball productions will be a mix of full onsite truck-based workflows, fully remote REMI (remote integration) productions, and REMCO (remote controlled) hybrid productions that use personnel and facilities both at the venue and at the broadcast center. In addition, ESPN will continue to rely on control rooms on campuses across the country, especially for games on SEC Network, ACC Network, Big 12 Now on ESPN+, and Longhorn Network.

When conference play begins later this fall, ESPN will have seven full truck-based productions per week. And, on Jan. 15, it will launch its Saturday Primetime college-basketball package in native 4K resolution with nearly all production crew and facilities onsite.

“It’s a mix based on availability,” Arends explains. “We are putting the pieces together as the season progresses. These are challenging times, but we know we have to figure out how to make it all work. It’s going to be fun, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Although announcers will be onsite more often than they were last year, ESPN will also continue to deploy its Live From Home production model for announcers when possible.

“While things are trending in the right way,” says Arends, “we are still in a pandemic. We’re cognizant of that and are still trying to not travel excessive numbers of people to site. But, compared with last year — when we weren’t even allowed on certain campuses — we feel like this is going to be a very different year. The Live From Home model and the campus[-control-room] production model paid dividends, and we’ll continue to use those tools. But we certainly have more of an ability to choose how we’re going to execute this season as opposed to being forced into certain models like last year.”

Perhaps most notably, college basketball venues will be largely back to full capacity after the 2020-21 season, when ESPN produced the majority of its games from entirely empty arenas.

“It will be great to have fans fully back in the venues,” says Arends. “We’re excited to get that sound back [into the broadcasts] and get that emotion back into the game. We certainly thrive off that, and I know the folks watching the game at home do the same.”

Building on Last Year and Looking Ahead

Having served as ESPN manager of college basketball remote operations for five years, Erin Orr has moved on to take over the new NHL on ESPN package. Arends has brought in ESPN vet Shane Smith to oversee the remote-ops team, which will see a lot of new and different challenges this season.

“Shane is going to be outstanding at this role,” says Arends. “He has a trip around the sun here to really understand basketball because it is different from anything else. But [there are] high expectations for Shane’s taking this to the next level.”

With the season off and running, Arends and the college-hoops team are focused on a marathon-not-a-sprint mindset after last year’s grueling campaign.

“We definitely have some challenges when it comes to shipping [equipment],” he says, “and those are especially hard for us because we’re doing [single-day] set/shoot/strike shows. College basketball is truly a team — from ops production to programming to technical people to transmission to crewing and so many others. It was a legitimate logistical nightmare last year: we had games canceled and moved at the very last minute, and our team did a phenomenal job of navigating it all. I was truly impressed every single week, and I know that, this season, the entire team will be even better.”

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