Live From Men’s Final Four: A Live Drone Flies Inside NRG Stadium For Game Coverage

CBS Sports, WBD Sports partner with CNN AIR on live drone flight in Houston

Sometimes innovation doesn’t happen in one big tectonic-shifting moment. Sometimes, innovation is gradual.

A drone will fly both inside and outside NRG Stadium offering live visuals for game and studio coverage at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four in Houston this weekend. (Photo: CBS Sports/WBD Sports)

Such has been the case for drone usage in live sports broadcasts. This weekend, for the first time at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, a drone will fly inside the stadium and serve as a live camera angle for game coverage.

CBS Sports and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports partnered with the NCAA to get the drone – which is provided by the CNN Aerial Imagery and Reporting (CNN AIR) division – approved this week for flight inside the stadium in pre-designated areas.

It’s a significant step forward for CBS Sports and WBD Sports production and operations teams. Last year in New Orleans, they were able to use a drone but only for exterior scenic shots outside of the Caesars Superdome.

“The goal is to just go inch-by-inch and to continue to grow,” says Chris Brown, VP, Production Operations and Technology for WBD Sports. “We were able to take what we were able to do last year, learn from it, and work with the NCAA to move it just a little bit more forward.”

The drone is provided by the CNN Aerial Imagery and Reporting (CNN AIR) division. (Photo: CBS Sports/WBD Sports)

The drone will not fly over the court but the networks have identified several spots inside the stadium bowl where they have angles that bring a special look to the show. There is a section in NRG Stadium where there are seat kills where the drone can hover between 20-80 feet in the air and fly north-to-south and east-to-west to pull in images. That, according to Jason Cohen, VP, Remote Technical Operations for CBS Sports is the “perfect flight path that gives us a good perspective of the court and isn’t populated with a ton of people.”

The drone also will serve a critical role this year as, for the first time in quite some time, a SkyCam will not be utilized here in Houston. The cabled-aerial fixture could not be set up inside NRG Stadium due to the massive centerhung videoboard that is erected over the court. It is both too wide and sits too low for a cabled-aerial to be effectively and safely put up. The centerhung, which usually isn’t in place for Houston Texans games – was in place following the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Show, which just closed on March 19.

“[The drone] helps us give that big sense of feel to the room,” says Cohen. “It establishes atmosphere. It helps us put the show where it belongs, which is a major event that we are covering in a major way.”

The drone will also be used on the exterior of the building as there are studio activations out among the Fan Fest.

One of the reasons for pushing for the drone at this year’s Men’s Final Four is that CBS Sports and WBD Sports were unable to utilize a SkyCam due the layout of NRG Stadium’s centerhung videobaord.

Live drones are not new for either of these networks. CBS Sports has used drones on both golf and the NFL, while WBD Sports has utilized them on NBA broadcasts. Their case studies are just a few examples of the sharply-increasing usage of drones as a live camera by sports broadcasters of all levels.

“Drones, in my mind, are one of the finest examples of a community-supported enhancement amongst all TV partners,” says Cohen, who applauded Fox Sports’ usage of a live drone during its coverage of the Big East Tournament. “No good comes out of anyone having a bad experience with the drone. We’re all rooting for each other and pushing it forward because we want it to be a successful key part of television coverage.”

“We want to advance every year,” continues Cohen, “but you can only get there if you have successful steps each way along the path.”

CBS Sports and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports will provide exclusive coverage of the 2023 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship from Houston, Texas. CBS will televise the NCAA Final Four National Semifinals on Saturday and the National Championship on Monday, April 3. Saturday’s Men’s Final Four features Florida Atlantic taking on San Diego State at 6:09 p.m. ET on CBS, followed by Connecticut vs. Miami approximately 40 minutes after the completion of the first game.

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