‘Our Most Extensive Production Plan Ever’: Premier Hockey Federation Broadcasts Full Season of Games Live for the First Time

60 regular-season women’s ice hockey games are handled at VISTA Worldlink’s centralized facility in South Florida

The numbers tell the story. Women’s sports are on the rise in the U.S.

In 2021 alone, multiple major women’s sports properties logged unprecedented ratings increases, with the number of events produced (for broadcast and/or streaming) at an all-time high.

The Premier Hockey Federation is broadcasting all of its games this season for distribution on the streaming platform ESPN+ in the U.S. Camera operator Andrew Heaviside shoots a game between the Connecticut Whale and Boston Pride at Danbury Ice Arena in Danbury, CT. (Photo: VISTA Worldlink)

The WNBA enjoyed its most-watched season in 13 years. The NWSL Final on CBS was the most-watched television event in the league’s history. Even at the collegiate level, the Women’s Basketball Final Four on the ESPN family of networks was the most-viewed Women’s Final Four Weekend since 2012, the Women’s College World Series was the most-watched edition of the event ever (with viewership 60% higher than that of the men’s CWS), and, most recently, the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship was the most-watched women’s college volleyball match in the history of ESPN.

A key factor in this success — in addition to the rising talent level of the athletes and the overall competitive level of the product — is that more women’s sports events are available live today on broadcast television, cable, and direct-to-consumer streaming platforms.

Now professional women’s ice hockey enters the conversation. The top professional league in North America, the freshly-rebranded Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), is in the midst of its first full regular season where its entire slate of games are being broadcast live.

Via a new rights agreement with ESPN, all 60 regular-season PHF games, the All-Star Game, and Isobel Cup Playoff games are being carried live on ESPN+ in the U.S. Additionally, 36 games (including All-Star and playoffs) are being broadcast to Canadian viewers on TSN and TSN Direct, and 30 games also being distributed internationally on the league’s Twitch channel.

“The owners and Commissioner Ty Tumminia wanted to be a lot more ambitious [entering this season],” says the PHF’s executive media consultant Michael Cohen. “What kind of network deal could we be looking at here? Not just to be content with what people are thinking you should be, but what you want to be. ESPN was just the perfect fit. They were returning as an NHL partner, they show a commitment as well to the college side of hockey, and they were very interested in being involved with us.”

The deal presents a tremendous opportunity for both the league and professional women’s hockey in North America. However, as they say: with great power comes great responsibility. The chance to broadcast all of your games? That’s one thing. Actually producing all your games? That’s a whole different story.

All PHF games are produced via an “at-home” workflow from VISTA Worldlink’s production hub. Announcers call the action off screens from the facility in South Florida. Here play-by-play voice Joe Malfa (front) and analyst Katie Gaus (back) call a game between the Boston Pride and Connecticut Whale from a booth at VISTA. (Photo: VISTA Worldlink)

To meet the demands of delivering quality live broadcasts for every one of the games, the PHF partnered with one of the country’s leaders in centralized live sports production, VISTA Worldlink. Located just north of Miami in Dania Beach, FL, VISTA’s facility is packed with 14 centralized REMI control rooms, making the company essentially a turnkey option for live sports production at scale.

Every PHF game this season is a five-camera shoot produced from a control room at the VISTA facility. Announcers are also calling games off screens in booths at VISTA. Using the public internet for primary backhaul transmission, VISTA brings all six camera feeds and audio feeds into its facility. Bonded cellular (from LiveU) is used for backup backhaul.

According to VISTA Worldlink Executive Producer Mike Freedman, each game’s on-air look is bolstered by the company’s relationship with ESPN, with the broadcaster providing the graphics package through a Ross Video Xpression template. VISTA adds some of its own production elements and delivers a fully produced show via Haivision encoders to ESPN’s Bristol, CT, facility, which delivers it to consumers in the ESPN+ platform.

It’s a workflow that’s largely routine for the team at VISTA. For example, the company has served as the centralized production hub for the National Women’s Soccer League since 2017. It handles similar large-scale centralized live event-production packages with such entities as Major League Soccer (MLS) and the United Soccer League (USL).

“Working with the PHF has been fantastic,” says VISTA Worldlink President Joshua Liemer, whose company was acquired by production-facilities provider NEP Broadcasting in March 2021. “This has been a great segue [for us] into hockey. Their commissioner is just world-class, and she has amazing vision for this league. It has been great to support them, see their growth, and help support these world-class athletes.”

In one of 14 live production control rooms at VISTA Worldlink’s Florida facility, the live game is cut and packaged before being shipped off to ESPN for streaming. For this game between the Boston Pride and Connecticut Whale, Justin Cohen (left) is the producer and Gage Tillotson (right) is the director. (Photo: VISTA Worldlink)

In addition to the six-camera coverage, PHF games also feature live interviews with players prior to each intermission break. VISTA’s infrastructure is also providing the workflow by which referees review plays via video at the arena. VISTA Director, Live Events, Steven Kravitz works directly with each franchise and did site surveys at each team’s home venue to ensure the best production plan for each location.

This season is not, however, the first time that VISTA has supported production of a major professional women’s hockey event. The PHF, previously known as the NWHL, hosted its Isobel Cup condensed season and players in Lake Placid at the end of January 2021. Although the event was unfortunately stopped by COVID, all games were live-streamed on Twitch accumulating over 2 million views as fans collectively watched over 15.7 million minutes of live content. The semifinals and Isobel Cup Final – eventually held in late March – were delivered to NBCSN and were the first ever national linear broadcasts of a professional women’s hockey league championship in the United States.’

A similar VISTA-backed workflow supported the scale of the productions from that bubble environment, granting the league unprecedented free exposure to sports fans. It also proved to be an effective learning ground for the product that is now being delivered to ESPN+, TSN, and Twitch. Perhaps the most important lesson learned: don’t overdo it.

“How often do you see sports and leagues that are not normally televised given this type of platform and [the broadcast] tries to change the way this or that is done?” says Cohen, a sports-television veteran who also serves as executive producer on key NWSL matches. “We respect these athletes so much that the last thing we’re going to do is mess with the core of the game. That was our biggest takeaway: just don’t get in the way.”

The Premier Hockey Federation was scheduled to return to action this weekend. However regular-season games scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 8 and Sunday, Jan. 9 have been postponed. According to an official league announcement, the postponements are due to COVID-19 protocols affecting the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps. Both weekend series will be rescheduled for a date to be determined. The league is currently scheduled to return to play on Saturday, Jan. 15.

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