XFL Returns: ESPN To Lean Into Access Through Live RF Audio From Players, Coaches, Replay Review

ESPN's Tim Reed: ‘We feel that there’s an opportunity to redefine how sports are covered.’

The XFL. A one-year flash-in-the-pan. A defunct eight-team football league founded by a professional-wrestling organization more than two decades ago. There should be no legacy there – other than an occasional chuckle, followed by a “you had to be there.” The epitome of IYKYK.

That 2001 season of the original XFL is infamous in sports-television circles. Its impact on the broadcasting of America’s most popular sport is still felt today. From aggressive use of Skycam to Steadicam operators sprinting out onto the field between plays, the XFL’s live on-screen product challenged the National Football League and its broadcast partners to reconsider limits and further push the envelope for access in its live game coverage.

Then came the pandemic-ravaged 2020 reboot. XFL 2.0 kicked off in early February 2020 and actually garnered good ratings (the opening game pulled a 2.1 on ABC) and received generally positive reviews. But, when COVID-19 all but shut down the country just five weeks into that season, the league was done. The XFL filed for bankruptcy on April 13, 2020.

Now, nearly 22 years after the original launch, the XFL is back, again, for a third crack at capturing the spring football market.

Play begins tomorrow with the Vegas Vipers facing the Arlington Renegades at 3 p.m. ET on ABC. It’s the first of four games this weekend on ABC, ESPN, or FX. The 43 games (40 regular-season, two playoffs, the championship) will air on a combination of those networks (ABC: seven games, ESPN and ESPN2: 22, FX: 15), with every game streamed live on ESPN+.

It’s an ambitious effort that will —- much like in 2020 — tap the top production talent, technology, and workflows that ESPN and Walt Disney Co. have to offer. With that comes a commitment to the broadcast innovation that marks the XFL. Skycam will be used — and spotlighted — on every game, RF cameras will work the field of play and the team bench areas, and access through live audio will prove to be the star of the show.

“We have a tremendous opportunity for innovation in our production,” says Tim Reed, VP, programing and acquisitions, ESPN. “We feel that there’s an opportunity here to redefine how sports are covered.”

The Big Differentiator: Live Audio

Although the camera complement at each game will be impressive and the pictures will look crisp (all XFL telecasts will be transmitted from site in 1080p), it will be hard to not turn first to the audio side of the telecast. ESPN and the XFL are partnering to offer unprecedented levels of access to RF audio of coach/player comms. In addition, from the league’s official replay center in Van Nuys, CA, XFL VP, Officiating and Rules Innovation, Dean Blandino will make rulings live for viewers to see. The feeds will offer fans a never-before-seen real-time look at the work done in the official review — even more than the efforts that were praised in the brief 2020 season.

The 2023 XFL season opens this weekend across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, FX, and ESPN+.

“We’re leaning heavily on our ‘Three As’ that are our pillar for XFL: action, audio, and access,” says Bryan Jaroch, coordinating producer, ESPN. “Action speaks for itself, but we’re going to be dipping in and out of those microphones throughout the telecast — much like we did in the last version of the XFL. It’s going to be fantastic access. That audio access is unprecedented in sports, and I think it will change how we cover sports and football moving forward.”

Says XFL SVP, Broadcast Operations, Jay Rothman, a former longtime ESPNer, “To be able to hear head coaches, quarterbacks, and access to Dean [Blandino] when he’s hot in the midst of a replay challenge: that will get fans closer to the game. We’re proud to be a league of all access. We’re proud to be a league that’s saying, ‘Yes.’ We’re proud to be building this partnership with the best media company in the world. We’ve been working hard for close to two years now on this, and we’re ready to roll.”

ESPN’s operational leadership — headed by SVP, Production Operations, Chris Calcinari; VP, Field Operations, Rex Arends; and Executive Director, Remote Operations, John LaChance —has worked closely with XFL brass to establish trust and is supporting its operations teams and technical crews in exploring innovative models of execution.

“The systems we have in place are dynamic, and that audio access is going to be a game-changer in terms of our coverage,” says Jaroch, who also works college and NFL football games for ESPN. We will have wireless cameras on the field — not only to get onto the field after scoring plays as we’ve seen [across the NFL] but also to get into that bench area and into areas that, in other leagues, we’re not able to get to. That’s going to be a differentiating factor for us. We have a saying at ESPN that we like to ‘humanize and analyze.’ All these elements help us humanize and tell these stories.”

Four Dedicated Crews

For onsite production efforts, ESPN has four core technical and production crews ready for the XFL season. Each crew will cover one game a week during the regular season, with two advancing to work the playoffs and one handling the championship.

Three of the four shows in each week of the regular season are full onsite truck productions with mobile units provided by Mobile TV Group (46 Flex) and Lyon Video (Lyon 15 and Lyon 18). The one REMI show each week is supported via a 20-path REMI-Pro mobile unit: Gravity Media Aspen. Each mobile unit and its assigned crew work together through the duration of the season.

The operational efforts are being overseen and executed by some of ESPN’s leading behind-the-scenes football talent, including Senior Operations Manager Tommy Mitchell, Operations Managers Dick Mullen and Leigh Michaud, Senior Operations Specialist Brian Ristine, and Operations Specialists Mitch Workman and Tim Denyes.

The 2023 XFL season kicks off on Saturday across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, FX, and ESPN+. For the full game-broadcast schedule, CLICK HERE.

SVG Chief Editor Jason Dachman contributed to this report.

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters