Live From Women’s Final Four: Slimmer RailCam, Debut of SupraCam, Sony 5500 Bring Fresh Visuals to ESPN’s ‘Biggest‘ NCAA Women’s Hoops Championship

Specialty cameras offer eye-popping visuals to the production from Minneapolis’s Target Center

It’s a massive weekend for women’s basketball.

From a rise in television ratings for this year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament to a loaded slate of powerhouse teams still in the running to cut down the nets, this year’s Women’s Final Four at Target Center in Minneapolis is shaping up to be one for the ages.

ESPN will broadcast the NCAA Women’s Basketball National Semifinals on Friday evening and the National Championship Game on Sunday evening. The game will be called from inside NEP EN1 (pictured).

ESPN is rising to the occasion: deploying 38 cameras, 86 channels of replay, a virtual player tracking system, multiple studio sets, and a large truck compound; providing live coverage of everything from the game to onsite studio programming; and dedicating resources for alternative viewing options as part of the network’s MegaCast.

The network is loading up on some camera resources that promise to present the game in a way never seen before. Most notably, the show features a new, slimmer RailCam, a cabled aerial camera system, and a high-end handheld Sony camera intended to perfect the increasingly popular trend of shooting the action in shallow depth of field.

What’s the most welcome piece of the puzzle? Ask anyone involved in this big show, and you’ll likely get the same answer: the return of a sold-out arena for the Final Four for the first time since 2019.

“The best part about this year is that the fans are back,” says Jimmy Platt, who is in the director’s chair for his fourth Women’s Final Four. “But [SupraCam and RailCam] allow us to provide the speed of the game from an inside-the-lines perspective and also give us a ‘wow moment’ going into or coming out of break.”

Slimmed Down, RF RailCam Takes Viewers Courtside

ESPN’s pool of resources for this event is substantial. Among the 38 cameras are a pair of super slow mos at the slash positions, a virtually-enhanced jib camera based on the concourse level, six Fletcher robotic cameras (on the shot clocks and down the halls shooting towards the locker rooms), and 10 POVs.

One of the production highlights of the past month of college-hoops postseason coverage on both the men’s and women’s sides has been the deeper deployment of the RailCam.

At the Women’s Final Four, a RailCam runs along the floor on the court’s near sideline, just beneath the main announcer position (pictured here).

Riding a track laid on the floor along the near sideline, this agile motion camera has been aggressively deployed by CBS, Turner Sports, ESPN, and Big Ten Network to deliver a unique perspective, taking the viewer courtside. Broadcasters have pulled in beautiful images, including a live shot following the point guard down the floor.

“What’s super cool about the RailCam is that you see the speed of the game,” says Pat Lowry, coordinating producer II of ESPN Women’s College Basketball, and a veteran of the NCAA Women’s Final Four for two decades. “It is the one place where you can see that. On top of that, we have the Second Spectrum data that displays distance that we can overlay on our main game cameras, and all of this truly gives you perspective of the athleticism of these players.”

Of note with this RailCam: ESPN has put a Sony P50 super slow-mo camera on the system, and it is operating as an RF unit; a first for the broadcaster on both fronts.

Across the industry, RailCam technology has evolved rapidly, especially during the pandemic, when broadcasts from empty or limited-audience arenas allowed operations crews to deploy the unit in new ways without the worries of seat kills or impeding sight lines. Only a couple of years ago, RailCam’s hardware limited its use to basketball games played in big football stadiums, where the court is built on a stage at the center of the venue. With today’s slimmer, lower-lying track, RailCam has been used this month in the arena environment, too, bringing a new perspective to a more intimate facility.

“RailCam takes you to the level where you feel like you are sitting courtside,” says Beth Chappell, coordinating producer, ESPN.  “It’s such a different look. Bringing it here is exciting.”

For ESPN, it was no small task getting RailCam on this event. It took significant planning and back and forth with Target Center and the NCAA to ensure that the system fit safely and comfortably at courtside.

“On follow-up site surveys,” Traci Flohr, remote operations producer, ESPN, explains, “we were taking out tape measures and measuring to the inch the exact minimum amount of space that [RailCam] could use to function. [We took] separate segments of rail in different increments to make sure that the Fletcher could hit the motor and the pulley systems in the right places, because it’s a tight space out there.

“Let’s just say, when they got it up and running,” she continues, “it was a victory for all of us.”

SupraCam Delivers Unique Aerials From Inside the Arena

For this Women’s Final Four, from courtside all the way up to the rafters, ESPN is acquiring a new angle with a four-point cabled aerial system known as SupraCam.

SupraCam (pictured to the left of Target Center’s centerhung videoboard) is a four-point cabled aerial system that will fly above the near-sideline stands.

This marks the first time a cabled aerial will be deployed by ESPN at a Women’s Final Four. Although it’s common for such a unit to be used in large football stadiums, it’s not unheard of but much less common in the arena environment.

“What SupraCam adds to the production is that you have the ability to see spacing,” says Chappell. “From the game cameras on the side, you can’t get the full perspective of spacing that really changes the game.”

Because of the large centerhung videoboard at Target Center, the SupraCam can’t fly over the entire bowl. Instead, the system needed to be rigged on one side of the court. It’s positioned to fly over the stands just off the near sideline at the south end of the arena.

Given both the RailCam and the SupraCam, Platt is excited about the opportunity to present the women’s game in a way that it has never been seen before.

“What I love about them more than anything is that the speed of the game translates,” says Platt, who will direct the game at the front bench alongside producer Kerry Callahan. “This is true of any sport: when you are on Camera 1 shooting play-by-play and you just pan, you don’t get a sense of the speed. But, if you get a camera that’s moving at the speed that the players are moving and you show that as a replay, you see that this game moves really quick.”

ESPN Flips Sony 5500 to Handheld for Added Shallow–Depth-of-Field Flexibility

Another key addition to the camera arsenal is the Sony HDC-5500.

More than 230 ESPN staffers are onsite in Minneapolis for the Women’s Final Four. Among the production and operations leaders are (from left) Coordinating Producers Beth Chappell and Pat Lowry; Associate Manager, Operations, Catherine Carroon; and Remote Operations Producer Traci Flohr.

A camera system that is growing in popularity for live sports broadcasts in the U.S., this “cinema-style” full-sensor live-broadcast camera system offers another option, allowing the front bench to call for an angle with a shallow–depth-of-field effect.

The camera also boasts the ability to allow the camera operator to flip back and forth between various levels of depth of field in real time during the game. That’s a key factor for Platt, who loves the look that shallow depth of field can bring but only when the moment calls for it.

“The important part of this shallow–depth-of-field trend in live sports is that, as we directors present the shot, it has to warrant shallow depth of field,” he says. “If I’m shooting over the shoulder back at the court to establish a good sense of placement, I don’t want shallow depth of field because I want to see the court and what’s going on. But, if you are a mom or a dad in the stands and you’re rooting on your kid and you are the director’s single focus to help tell the emotion of what you’re feeling as a parent, then I want that shallow depth of field, because whatever is behind you doesn’t matter.”

Here in Minneapolis, ESPN is deploying the HDC-5500 with a FUJINON 14-35mm Cine-Servo lens. Platt notes that Monday Night Football (of which he is the director) is looking to use the 5500 in greater numbers next season.

SEC Network, ACC Network Arrive To Surround the Minneapolis Experience

The main game production has a studio set erected inside the arena bowl for SportsCenter and for pre/postgame and halftime programming, but the Disney-owned SEC Network and ACC Network are arriving with reinforcements of their own.

To support South Carolina’s second consecutive trip to the Final Four, SEC Network has its own studio onsite. Host Alyssa Lang and analyst Steffi Sorensen will anchor SECN’s programming slate, which began with a live production of The Paul Finebaum Show on Thursday. On Friday, SEC Now leads directly into the Gamecocks’ matchup with Louisville and returns to air immediately following the game to recap the action.

Should South Carolina win, SEC Now will return for practice hits on Saturday night and with a full pre/postgame offering on National Championship Sunday.

Meanwhile, the ACC Network is here for the flip side of that matchup to cover everything Louisville. Its studio coverage tipped off from Minneapolis Thursday with a special edition of Nothing But Net with host Kelsey Riggs and analysts Kelly Gramlich, Chelsea Gray and Muffet McGraw. The program returns on Friday for a pregame show at 4 p.m. ET and for postgame following the matchup.

Should Louisville win Friday, Nothing But Net will be back Sunday with a 90-minute pregame show prior to the Championship Game and a postgame show immediately following the contest.

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