Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2023: Tom Fletcher’s Passion for Production Innovation
When Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Tom Fletcher and his father, Archie, started Fletcher Chicago in 1987, having a big impact on sports production around the globe was most likely not on the to-do list. But the then-fledgling company made a ton of right moves in those early days, making the right hires (like Dan Grainge, Ed Andrzejewski and Jonathan Stein), building the right relationships with networks and leagues, and understanding how to put new camera systems into new locations to capture sports events in completely new ways.
There are many angles of coverage that you are familiar with that, before Fletcher, did not exist. Take the now ubiquitous camera position in NBA and big-time college basketball coverage of “Above the Rim” (on top of the shot clock) or remote controlled “ Slam Cam” (behind the glass). It’s come a long way since those early days in the 1991 NBA Finals with a full sized Hot Head or 1994 NBA All-Star game when the camera was an industrial security camera that required two people (Tom and Dan) to operate it. Fletcher says many camera positions were inspired by the iconic Sports Illustrated still photographers.
“We wanted to create cameras that were more impactful and more necessary in the game,” says Fletcher. “The shots that really drove us to the next level were putting a remote-controlled camera behind the backboard for NBA on NBC director Andy Rosenberg.”
Operating the cameras back then was a two-person job, with Grainge handling the pan and tilt while Fletcher operated a separate device that controlled zoom in (one button), zoom out (another button) and focus (two additional buttons).
“It was designed for security guards not to cover guards,” Fletcher loves to say. The team at Fletcher pushed manufacturers to build small more professional tools.
And then there is Fletcher’s favorite sport: hockey. Watch any NHL game today and you will see literally decades worth of innovations on-air that were developed by Fletcher Chicago.
“We had the idea for a goal judge camera when they used to have a physical goal judge cage in Los Angeles,” he says. “They had a still camera located up behind the net above the glass and looking down on the net and the slot area. I asked if we could put a camera there because the technology was still a full-sized hothead. We tested it, and it became a staple shot that they just take on power plays, and just became a go-to angle on all shots. I’m a hockey fan over all the sports, so that’s the one that I’m most passionate about because it helped the sport of hockey translate better to TV.”
Adds Dan Grainge: “Hockey was Tom’s passion and he was always looking for ways to improve the coverage. His idea was to find a way to stay inside the glass, so you never lost sight of the puck. With that goal in mind, we worked together to develop the Goal Judge and Red Line camera angles and we combined the best quality box camera with the widest lens and the fastest robo on the market. We came up with a new mounting method using speedrail to reduce fan blockage by hiding our mount behind the existing stanchion and, eventually, these angles would become standard and change the way hockey was covered.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says that Fletcher Cams revolutionized the televising of NHL games at about the same time that high definition television was coming into being. “Tom and his group gave us an opportunity to show views of the game that nobody had ever seen before,” says Bettman. “Whether it was the speed shot or the rocker cam, or overhead from the scoreboard or in net, it enabled our fans to get inside a game that up until then, many people thought was too fast to televise. It was always a priority of our broadcast department to work with Fletcher because we knew we needed to try new things that we needed to be innovative and we couldn’t afford not to experiment. And again, because the game is so fast, all of these innovations actually made us as good a sport on television as all the other sports, when the conventional wisdom at the time was that was not possible.”
Fletcher graduated from the University of Illinois in 1985 with an eye on the film industry when an opportunity to start a new business with his father, who was a regional director for the lighting company Strand Chicago, arose.
“My father had just secured a deal to build a new studio for Oprah Winfrey for WLS Chicago and redo all of their studios dimming and lighting fixtures and things like that,” he says. “And one of the companies involved was a company out of San Antonio, Texas called Media Specialties and they asked my father to start a business together and open up a Chicago office. I didn’t want to do sales, but I went down to San Antonio for the for the summer and learned the lighting side of the business.”
Eighteen months later the relationship the team in San Antonio and his father soured and a friend, Ginny Hart suggested that Tom and his father start their own business.
“I called my dad and said, ‘let’s do this together’ and we started an equipment company to sell dimming systems, but we quickly pivoted to sell to news’ mini-cam departments. And I liked going into the mini-cam departments because when you’d go in and show them a new piece of equipment, they’d buy enough for whatever number of crews they had.”
Helping boost sales was the major transition from two-man to one-many crews. And given the weight of cameras back then, close to 30 pounds, helping cut down that weight made the Fletcher team popular in through in the Midwest.
“I needed my dad’s capital his business savvy, but he needed my hustle and willingness to go out and call on all the broadcasters and come back and say we need to get this item to be able to sell and build,” adds Fletcher. “I’m the idea guy and one of my big skills is watching the trends in the industry and seeing where things are going. When you own a rental business and you invest millions of dollars, especially on the motion picture side, you can’t guess wrong.”
Grainge says Fletcher was always on top of new innovations.
“He knew the latest cameras coming out and had ideas where to put them,” he explains. “The XC999 and other small box cameras allowed us to put cameras where they had never been before like the slam cam for basketball.”
A big moment for the company arrived in 1989 when Fletcher bought a remote head from Laurie Frost, primarily known for being a camera assistant on Stanley Kubrick films like Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon.
“Pulling focus is really hard and he was tired of Kubrick putting him on a crane hanging off the edge of a cliff with nothing underneath him, so he built the very first remote head to pull focus remotely,” says Fletcher. “We bought the head along with a crane to service the motion picture business as Backdraft was going to be shot in Chicago along with a few other big films.”
Fletcher soon realized that the Hollywood game was a very different animal from news and sports. A conversation about his frustrations with Laurie lead to Laurie casually mentioning that the remote head was used for a boxing event in Royal Albert Hall.
“That just got my brain thinking and I said to my father, ‘we need to buy this $100,000 piece of equipment,” says Fletcher. “We took the risk, and we had skin in the game and that skin in the game meant that I had to figure out how to make money with it. So, I turned my focus to sports.”
It also established a solid relationship with Laurie who ultimately built a smaller (and less costly) versions of the remote heads such as Rocker, Micro and Mini.
“One of the most gratifying things to me is many people in the industry refer to the remote camera positions as a Fletcher,” says Fletcher. One of the moments when Fletcher realized the company had made it was when Adam Acone, who was at the Nagano Olympics, called him to let him know that even the Japanese would refer to some of the camera positions as “Fletcher.”
In January of 1991 the company made a big leap into the sports market as it provided the Hot Head overhead camera system for the NHL All-Star Game in Chicago with Neil Flagg. Five months later, Fletcher reinstalled at Chicago Stadium for the NBA Finals.
“It was the first year of NBC’s contract with the NBA and it had Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson, and the world noticed the overhead shot,” says Fletcher. “And after we finished the NBA Finals everybody wanted that camera angle, but no one could afford it. Every broadcaster was calling us saying, ‘How much is it? And at the time, I want to say we it cost around $2,850 a game and no one could afford that for a ‘gimmick shot’.”
That led Fletcher to begin to hunt for a corporate sponsor so that the camera could become something like the Goodyear blimp: pay for the camera and get an on-air promotion. Upper Deck Trading Cards stepped up.
“Upper Deck got the concept and it was a lot less money than buying ad time or buying signage at the venue,” says Fletcher. “We put cameras in New York and Los Angeles which were used for both hockey and basketball and in Chicago for the Bulls. Upper Deck loved it, Broadcasters loved it, and the fans loved it.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the bottom dropped out of the trading card business and Upper Deck needed to opt out .
“Dan Grainge said ‘I think we can just make it a regular rental business because everybody wants the shot and we had established it for two years,’” explains Fletcher. “And one of the smart things we did during the Upper Deck era we was gave the feed to out-of-town broadcasters, so we had built relationships with everyone.”
Recalls Grainge: “In the early years of Fletcher Sports working with Tom was a complimentary partnership. He would come up with a new idea where to put a camera and I would find a way to mount it. Archie Fletcher would find a way to pay for it and Sally Fletcher made sure we had the best HR benefits. It was a small company with a real family atmosphere and as time went on ideas started coming directly from producers and directors. Cameras and robotics continued to get smaller and better quality and it all made the process a little easier.”
Building Tech Relationships
When camera manufacturers moved from using tubes to CCD chips it opened a whole new world for those looking to build smaller and smaller cameras. A key development was the “box camera” and in 1994 Fletcher Chicago and Frost were tapped by Manolo Romero at the FIFA World Cup to create a commentator camera. One of the challenges at an event like a World Cup is that multiple broadcasters are working side by side, making it impossible to have a cameraperson shooting the on-air talent.
“Sitting right here is Brazil, and they’ve got two spots for their two announcers; then 10 feet over are the Spanish broadcasters; and then 10 feet over are the English broadcasters,” says Fletcher. “The broadcasters wanted to put their personalities on air so we created a remote control camera where you could change the framing just slightly, the camera we used then was a JVC industrial camera with a small plastic-type lens. And we had a hundred of them and that led to manufacturers asking us what features did we need? What kind of power? What kind of lens mount. And at the same time Laurie made a remote head that could hold six pounds, so we worked with Laurie to build Camera Corps. which was eventually sold to Bexel.”
Another big leap was the move into super slo-mo and high-speed cameras. The 2006 MLB All-Star Game, in Pittsburgh, was the backdrop for the deployment of the first ultra-speed camera for baseball.
“We used a NAC high-speed camera, and it allowed us to show the baseball getting compressed and no one had ever seen a shot like that,” says Fletcher. “But that wasn’t the key thing that we did. The key thing that the Fletcher team did was that we turned that replay around in under 30 seconds. At the time Quantel had a similar system that could turn around a replay in European soccer in 15 minutes. In soccer that isn’t a big deal because you don’t analyze things until halftime, but in the U.S., we needed to get it under 30 seconds. And that really launched us into the specialty high-speed camera business.”
In 2018 the Fletcher family sold Fletcher Chicago which is now owned by the NEP Group, the largest production company on the globe. After a little more than 30 years Tom and family handed NEP a company that had grown from a small company to international force that was key for coverage of NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL and other major sporting events around the world, as well as for highly anticipated political and entertainment events such as presidential debates and the Oscars Red Carpet. Today Tom is FUJIFILM Director of Marketing
“I’m the idea guy and one of my big skills is watching the trends in the industry and seeing where things are going,” he says. “When you own a rental business and you invest millions of dollars, you can’t guess wrong.” Over the years, we bought all the right gear but more importantly we hired all of the right people to grow a successful business.”