2021 in Review (Part 1): A Year Unlike Any Other as Live Sports Productions Navigated a Pandemic-Altered World
Reports from CFP National Championship, Super Bowl LV, Daytona 500, Final Four, Masters, NFL Draft, and MLB All-Star
After a pandemic-fraught 2020, the live-sports-production industry welcomed 2021 as a return to normalcy. However, new and even greater challenges arose as live sports productions continued to navigate the pandemic throughout 2021. Nonetheless, sports broadcasters, technology vendors, and production-service providers worked together to continue to develop unique new workflows — both onsite and remote — that paved the way for a new era of live-sports broadcasts.
While early 2021 saw near-constant overlap of sports seasons due to schedule changes, the sporting events calendar began to stabilize as the year went on. As a result, sports viewership and ratings began to rise and sports-production teams began to return onsite. Below is part 1 of SVG’s overarching look at how the industry continued to innovate in 2021 (CLICK HERE for Part 2). Check out the monumental efforts undertaken by broadcasters to produce live sports events over the past year despite the ongoing pandemic, including the CFP National Championship, Super Bowl LV, Daytona 500, NCAA Men’s Final Four, The Masters, NFL Draft, and MLB All-Star below.
College Football Playoff National Championship
As one of ESPN’s most important properties, the College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship Game spurs increased innovation and ingenuity. Such events typically generate intuitive ideas, but the magnitude of the game and the curveball that is COVID-19 intensified efforts in pushing limits. ESPN rolled out one of its biggest efforts for the title game, including a 270,000-sq.-ft. compound, 75 in-game and studio cameras, and heavy reliance on remote workflows.
“To support the operation and keep a socially distant area, we’ve had to come up with a unique plan here in Miami,” said John LaChance, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “We really transformed into a unique, one-of-a-kind broadcast compound.”
Major sports events normally call for a large television compound, but ESPN’s setup next to Hard Rock Stadium was something totally different. COVID-19’s impact resulted in reduction of more than 150 onsite positions. Even so, 465 credentialed personnel were on hand for the game. With total control of the exterior loading docks, LaChance and his colleagues devised a detailed layout of each team’s location within the 270,000-sq.-ft. compound. An essential component to the operation was ensuring that everyone is healthy before they step foot in the area.
“This year’s national health crisis,” LaChance said,“required a strategy that features enhanced safety protocols, multiple rounds of testing, health screenings, heightened cleaning and sanitation standards, and ample distribution of PPE.”
The compound housed 13 mobile production units and ancillary support vehicles. Game Creek Video had a large presence for the production of the main telecast, College GameDay, and the MegaCast. Live Media Group’s Gracie was responsible for SEC Network’s live coverage, and a BSI truck handled all RF audio and video elements. In addition, a 15,000-sq.-ft. office facility was adjacent to the compound.
The massive compound provided a lot of firepower, but, to prepare for any production emergency, the team developed a handful of backup plans to keep the linear and surrounding content on-air.
“There is complete redundancy for power, transmission, and infrastructure of the broadcast,” noted LaChance.“We published an eight-page document with all of the backup plans and what-if scenarios that we hope we’ll never have to execute, but it’s comforting to know that we’ll be prepared should the need arise.”
A total of 75 cameras and other broadcast gear were deployed to capture every play and sound of the title game. The broadcaster brought back a dual Skycam system (the traditional one close to the field and a “hi-sky” version) to get a full look at the playing field. When not traversing the field, the AllCam was positioned at an elevated vantage point for isolated shots of players and wider shots of plays. Up in the air, a fixed-wing aircraft and the Goodyear Blimp transmitted aerial views of the venue and the surrounding city.
At field level, ESPN once again leveraged its extensive arsenal near the goal line and first-down line. A total of 28 POV cameras were embedded within the front and rear PylonCam systems. Those in the back-line pylons will have pan, tilt, zoom functionality, which was introduced for last year’s Championship Game in New Orleans. There were two styles of Marker Cam — one regular and one c360 with 180 degrees of movement — and two RF line-to-gain cameras on each sideline.
Capping the complement were 26 specialty cameras: 11 Sony HDC-4300’s with super-slo-mo capability, 10 robos, three 4K cameras (two Sony HDC-4800’s and a Sony HDC- P43), and two RF handhelds on the field.
Bringing the total to 98, 23 cameras covered College GameDay and shows on SEC Network.
“Even with the protective measures, this is still a marquee event,” said LaChance. “The company is going to make sure that we have the appropriate coverage.”
On the audio side, more than 100 microphones were dispersed on the field and in the stands to give in-venue noise to fans watching at home. – Kristian Hernandez
CLICK HERE for more of SVG’s coverage of the CFP National Championship Game.
Super Bowl LV
The COVID pandemic has given new meaning to the phrase “best-laid plans”, but CBS Sports and its technology partners at the center of the production of Super Bowl LV were proof positive that one of the world’s biggest televised sports events can innovate, grow, and evolve.
“Pre-pandemic, we had a very different plan to where we landed,” said Patty Power, EVP, operations and engineering, CBS Sports.
A Super Bowl compound is always large, but social distancing made this year’s even larger. The CBS domestic compound housed 19 trucks and production trailers. According to Mike Francis, VP, remote engineering and planning, CBS Sports, the compound was essentially double the size of what was planned.
“It’s definitely a big compound with a lot more facilities to link up,” he added. “And then we need to make sure that everything is available everywhere. When it spread out, we had a lot more to execute on that side of things.”
NEP Supershooter SSCBS was the main show and game truck; Supershooter 4 was the tape release.
“We have Game Creek Encore handling our studio shows,” Francis added.“Sprinkled in the compound for technology and social distancing, we have F&F GTX19, GTX20, Game Creek B1 for robotics, and all the support trucks that go along with them.” A large flypack deployment was built by NEP Bexel for distribution, transmission, routing, and monitoring. And THUMB- WAR was onsite for media management and remote editing.
“We will also execute some remote editing in the cloud with Avid and Microsoft Azure,” said Francis. “CBS VP, Post Production, Ed Coleman is going to use that to provide a lot of the postproduced elements we will use.”
Filmwerks and Jack Morton Worldwide collaborated on the concourse set, which was located in the opposite corner from the pirate ship. There was also an exterior set on the south end of the stadium as well as multiple standup locations in the stadium and behind the exterior set.
All season long,CBS took advantage of the lack of fans to bring a new look to camera angles and coverage. That look hit new heights during Super Bowl LV with more than 120 cameras deployed.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of embracing our environment and the conditions with fewer fans in the stadium and with an LED ribbon across the lower bowl,” said Jason Cohen, VP, remote technical operations, CBS Sports.“We’ve mounted cameras to give the viewer a different look and feel to the game. In addition, we’re just trying to make the game bigger and bolder.”
A number of innovations were on display. Most notable, the Trolley Cam point-to-point cabled camera system complemented two Skycams and a Flycam.
If there has been one technology story in NFL coverage this year, it is the use of cameras capable of shallow–depth-of-field shooting on the field during warmups and after key plays.
“Everyone has been talking about it and is excited about it,” said Cohen. “Obviously, we’re going to continue what we’ve been doing all along in the playoffs, which is to use the Sony Venice camera on a Steadicam.”
The sideline Steadicam rigs were also complemented by traditional HD cameras, three of which will had Canon’s CJ20ex5B handheld lens. Those lenses are noted for their 20X zoom and wide angle. – Ken Kerschbaumer
CLICK HERE for more of SVG’s coverage of Super Bowl LV.
Fox Sports’ live mirrorless camera, dubbed the ‘Megalodon,’ first captured the eyes of television viewers during Week 15 of the NFL regular season and returned for the NFL postseason. For the first race of the new NASCAR season, the broadcaster deployed different variations of it for shots in close-up and far-to-reach areas.
“We’re expanding upon the Megalodon that we used for NFL games,” said Kevin Callahan, VP, field operations and engineering, Fox Sports. “In addition to having it on a Ronin-S handheld, we’re also experimenting with it on a DigiBoom [gimbal-stabilized rig] to give us different angles.”
The Megalodon became a tech craze in football; in Daytona, both man and machine were in front of the lens. The relatively simple setup, consisting of a Sony a7R IV mirrorless DSLR camera and Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens, was intended to provide a cinematic vibe new to a NASCAR telecast. Since cars blaze down the track at more than 150 mph, capturing the desired shot would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In an effort to use these stellar live shots, the broadcaster placed the operator in an area with still subject matter.
“We’ll try to get those shots that we haven’t really been able to get with a shallow depth of field,” Callahan explained.
The camera was swapped with the Ronin-S handheld, which viewers are normally used to seeing in the end zone of NFL telecasts, to grab tight shots of individuals when applicable and with the DigiBoom, which can be used to hang over the barrier wall for shots of the pit crew during tire changes and other activity. Prior to green flag, the Megalodon was located in the garages as drivers prep for the race.
The camera complement for this event hit a grand total of 74. Every nook and cranny of the 2.5-mile track was covered by 16 Sony HDC-4300’s (with more than one at 6X speed), 16 Sony HDC-P50’s, two Sony HDC-4800’s at 16X, and a Fletcher high-speed robo at the finish line. The Sony HDC- 4800’s wee outfitted with two Fujinon 8K lens to capture crystal-clear shots after the sun sets in Daytona.
Prior to Sunday’s race, Fox Sports covered the action- packed NASCAR Speedweeks leading up to the main event. Among the events was the first-ever Busch Clash, which ran on Daytona’s 63-year-old road course, permitting Callahan and the operations team to deploy a handful of cameras that haven’t been used in quite some time.
Having made its NASCAR debut at last year’s race, aerial drone coverage was improved dramatically. Capable of 85 mph, the FPV racing drone, operated by Los Angeles-based production company Beverly Hills Aerials, covered the straightaway near the starting line and other areas around the track. Having experience at this specific location, the operator hovered the drone over the cluster of cars and detail the progress of the race from above. To display synchronization with all broadcast cameras (excluding the Megalodon), Fox Sports installed a CyanView Cy-CI0 to this drone for appropriate camera shading.
“We’re putting a Dream Chip camera on [the racing drone] to get the best possible image that we can,” said Callahan.“This will allow our video operators to be able to paint it and make sure that it matches the rest of our cameras. Other times when we’ve put out these types of specialty cam- eras, we’ve lacked that control to get them to match; they’ve always looked a little bit different. Now we’ve been able to make this a reality.”
The heavy-lift drone carried extra cargo: a Sony HDC-P50 equipped with Canon’s new 20X5 lens. More traditionally, the Goodyear Blimp was also on hand for shots near the clouds. – KH
NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four
The 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament required an incredibly comprehensive effort to pull off. For the joint broadcasters of CBS Sports and Turner Sports — who have partnered for more than a decade on this event in one of sports television’s most unique production collaborations — a unique execution that included a bubble environment, 10 unique production crews, and a global pool of remote resources came to a head as Baylor battled Gonzaga for the National Championship.
Despite all of the differences with this year, game coverage felt quite familiar to the high-powered effort that CBS and Turner put in on the Final Four year in and year out.
There were nearly 50 cameras dedicated exclusively to the game broadcast, including the popular RailCam, a four-point SkyCam, multiple jibs, and 16 super slow motion cameras. There was also a strong commitment to robotic cameras this year as there were as many as 27 robos in the total arsenal.
These types of decisions reflect the desire for CBS Sports and Turner Sports to “definitely [lean] into technology” this year in an effort to overcome the challenges presented by the pandemic, as noted by CBS Sports’ Executive Producer/EVP, Production Harold Bryant before March Madness began in March.
Efforts on the lens front also drove up the quality of the images being captured for the game broadcast. Canon glass that included some toys from its TS-E series was used with the Canon C500 Mark II camera that allowed for camera operators to pull in new and interesting looks.
“Disruption breeds innovation and creativity, and this is no different,” Craig Barry, EVP/Chief Content Officer for Turner Sports said prior to the start of the Tournament. “Some of the technology is by design, and some is by neces- sity. We feel really confident that we have a great mix of technology and innovation. We’re trying to create as much access as possible — to the game, to the court – and get the fan as close as possible. With all the social distancing, we wanted to make sure that that priority stayed intact. And that’s where the technology comes in.”
On the audio front, enhanced crowd audio was be implemented to accompany the reactions coming in from the limited attendance inside the stadium. There was also a sizeable compound including 14 mobile production units powered by seven twin packs with 12 UPS units.
Shoulder programming was onsite in Indy with two sets covered by seven primary cameras. Those shows — and the main broadcast — were supplemented by eight robotic and POV cameras positioned in places where the networks cannot position physical camera operators for health and safety precautions. Those positions included team bus drop off points as well as the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium when teams walk from the locker room to the floor.
On the studio show side, the two broadcasters are work- ing with Ross for augmented reality graphics on the studio set. – Brandon Costa
CLICK HERE for more of SVG’s coverage from the NCAA Men’s Final Four.
There were numerous firsts at the 2021 Masters Tournament. First, of course, was Hideki Matsuyama’s becoming the first male Japanese golfer to win a major championship.
There were several firsts on the TV- production side as well: most notably, the opening of Augusta National’s Content Center, a new complex of buildings (one for CBS, one for ESPN, and one for the Masters Digital Group) that housed the type of operations typically found in a television compound.
“Everybody was really looking forward to working in the new Content Center,” said Patty Power, EVP, Operations and Engineering, CBS Sports.“It’s just incredible to have the experience of being on a remote [production] that size and able to work in a beautifully designed building.”
The Content Center more closely resembles a nice neighborhood — with sidewalks, street lamps, even welcome desks inside the buildings — than a traditional broadcast center.
“We had management, production, operations, and the VO booths and announcers for ancillary shows — including Featured Groups; Amen Corner; 15-16; and 4, 5, and 6 — all housed in the Content Center,” added Power. “There also was a large camera-storage area, tech management, and a quality- control area for our group.”
The Masters was the penultimate significant event during a six-month run for CBS comprising the Masters in November 2020, Super Bowl LV in February, the return of March Mad- ness, and next month’s PGA Championship.
“The Super Bowl was the smoothest really large event we had executed,” said Mike Francis, VP, remote engineering and planning, CBS Sports, “but this had another level of complex- ity and scale that no other event reaches.”
Over the previous 13 months, CBS Sports honed a golf-production workflow that relies on personnel working remotely. That was the case for the Masters, for which much of the ARL augmented-graphics team was located in New Zealand and the TopTracer team operated out of a studio at All Mobile Video in Midtown Manhattan.
Previous golf workflows were expanded and merged with several new initiatives at the Masters. The compound housed more than 50 vehicles, including NEP SSCBS, which handled second-nine coverage, and Game Creek Video Encore, which handled first-nine coverage. Also in the compound were NEP Supershooter 4 for the featured groups; F&F GTX20, in its Masters debut, handling coverage of Holes 4, 5, and 6; Game Creek Video Spirit, producing 4K HDR coverage of Amen Corner; NEP Supershooter 5, making its debut and housing
TopTracer and ARL onsite operations; and Game Creek Video Celtic, handling On the Range programming in its first year at the Masters.
For many viewers at home, the highlights of tournament coverage included the use of drones, two Flycams, and the Atlas shallow–depth-of-field camera.
“I give a lot of credit to the folks at Augusta National for working with us to try new angles and new technologies,” said Jason Cohen, VP, remote technical operations, CBS Sports. “We’ve opened up the show to be able to showcase the course in a way that was never done before. All those angles and all those technologies provide very different benefits but all with outstanding results. And that is capturing the essence of the course and the tournament in a unique and compelling way.”
Two drones were used to enable almost continuous coverage. The larger one carried an RF transmitter and sent the signal to the BSI tower receive point and then to the compound. The smaller drone used the RF signal from the controller to get the signal to the controller and from there to the compound.
The Flycam units also proved popular, and its effect benefited from the fact that patrons were on the course.
The camera rig called Atlas by CBS played a key part in coverage of the final groups on Saturday and Sunday, and Cohen considers the shallow-depth-of-field camera a natural fit for golf coverage.
“Golf is a perfect sport for this type of technology,” he explains. “It’s a controlled setting, and you can focus on one athlete at a time. There aren’t a bunch of people at the same time, making the operator try to figure out who to put in fo- cus. It was easy to follow one golfer and create that separation from the backdrop, and I think it was a success.” – KK
CLICK HERE for more of SVG’s coverage from The Masters.
April 29 – May 1
The NFL Draft has always been a big deal for ESPN, and that tradition continues. For this year’s edition, the production team supported two shows: one on ESPN and College Gameday on ABC. About 55 cameras were used to cover the Draft in Cleveland, including multiple jibs, a JITACAM, drone, a two-point cable cam, two Steadicams, and even a blimp.
Steve Carter, senior operations manager, ESPN, gave a shoutout to ESPN Remote Operations Specialists Jack Coffey and Joe Rainey for pulling together a great setup for a Draft that was held in a massive tent along the lake front in Cleveland.
“The NFL has a well-thought-out plan here,” said Carter. “The stage and the main theater are amazing with the amount of LED screens in there.”
ESPN’s main Draft stage was along the Cuyahoga River with ESPN’s show in the back corner of the field. The Gameday set was in a parking lot along the river next to FirstEnergy Stadium.
“We have about 250 people onsite and increased the number of trucks for social distancing,” Carter explained. “The compound has 10 trucks with NEP EN1 A, B, C, D, and E handling ESPN and NEP Supershooter 4 A, B, and C handling Gameday on ABC.”
A sub-routing location in the compound managed more than 100 feeds coming in from prospects at home and the 32 NFL team facilities. There were also 22 inbound feeds from ESPN in Bristol, CT.
One of the production highlights was the two-point cable system that ran from outside FirstEnergy and down into the back corner of the theater in a massive tent beside Lake Erie. In addition, secondary sets for analysts were positioned with city backdrops.
“We had an established facility and a lot of support in Bristol. On the road,” he noted, “it’s a little bit more difficult, but we’ve had the time to plan and make this work. We absolutely drew from many of the things we accomplished last year.” – KK and BC
CLICK HERE for SVG’s full coverage of ESPN’s NFL Draft efforts.
After a virtual draft that VP/Head of Media Operations Dave Shaw called NFL Media’s most challenging operation to date, the league’s media arm returned to a semblance of normalcy in Cleveland for the opening night of the 2021 NFL Draft. With a full production and crew onsite, the event marked a bookend of sorts to the pandemic era, which began with a trailblazing decentralized production of last year’s Draft.
“I wouldn’t call it a hybrid [production] as much as I would say it’s the best of both worlds,” said 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.”
NFL Media 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 was also on hand to accommodate overflow. In addition, three EVS replay operators and all graphics operators were 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,” said 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 produced its NFL Network show onsite in 1080p to align with co-broadcast ESPN and Van Wagner
Sports and Entertainment Productions, who managed the in-house show and set up a TOC in Cleveland to manage feeds for the respective broadcasts on NFL Network, ESPN, and ABC. In all, NFL Media shared 120 feeds with Van Wagner and ESPN through an IP gateway provided by Game Creek Video. – Jason Dachman
CLICK HERE for SVG’s full coverage of NFL Media’s Draft efforts.
Whether it’s the star-studded roster of players or the fact that this game was missing from the MLB calendar last year, the 2021 MLB All-Star Game was one of the more highly anticipated exhibitions in recent memory. Fox Sports was once again at the center of this crown-jewel event, with 65 cameras (including two Megalodons and two FlyCams), 4K HDR workflows, a crowded truck compound, and offsite resources from the Vault in Los Angeles.
“A show like the MLB All-Star Game is always a huge team effort,” said Mike Davies, SVP, technical and field operations, Fox Sports.“This will be one of the bigger onsite shows that we’ve had [in quite some time].”
Soon after the beginning of the season in April, Fox Sports was ready to go full bore with new technologies and workflows developed during the pandemic. Unfortunately, when Major League Baseball decided to move this year’s All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver, the broadcaster faced a bevy of production and logistical challenges. Adapting on the fly and making im portant decisions quickly, Fox Sports shifted to a new production plan.
“The team that we have out here have done a remarkable job with planning within a short period of time,” said Francisco Contreras, director, field operations, Fox Sports.“We started in May, so we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare.”
A lot of the trouble was mitigated by physically traveling to Denver to check out Coors Field. With so many production elements happening at once, it was imperative to construct a foundation that set the crew up for success.
“We had a total of three site visits [in Denver],” said Tom Lynch, lead technical producer, Fox Sports.“We try to push the idea that we’re going to be extremely organized for our shows.”
Fox Sports used this trio of site visits to plot out their camera map as well as to work with local and state officials to solidify a COVID-19 safety plan for employees in the compound.
“The challenge with any All-Star Game is finding those special camera spots and where we’ll be able to best showcase the ballpark we’re in,” said Brad Cheney, VP, field operations and engineering, Fox Sports.“We worked with in a condensed timeline and with ever-changing operational awareness from the state and the league.”
Shallow-depth-of-field cameras have taken the sports world by storm, deployed at almost every sports event since their introduction last December. Fox Sports calls its rig Megalodon and deployed two simultaneous systems at MLB All Start. One, a Sony α1, worked on the field to capture the customary images of the players. The other, featuring a Sony A7R IV with a Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens and DJI Ronin-S gimbal, was used in a relatively new capacity within the crowd and concourse to show cinematic shots of the surrounding areas.
Above the field, Fox Sports debuted two FlyCam systems: one traversing the foul line on the first-base side from home plate to the right-field foul pole, the other covering the other side of the field. These aerial systems featured a Sony HDC-P50.
Although the two Megalodons may steal the tech head- lines, there were other gems sprinkled around the 65-camera show. At the top of the list was the broadcaster’s presentation of Tuesday night’s contest in 4K HDR. A total of 50 cameras were set at 1080p HDR, including the Megalodons, FlyCams, a Sony HDC-P50 on an RF MōVI camera rig, and another RF handheld. – KH
CLICK HERE for more SVG’s live coverage from the MLB All-Star Game.