By Joe Lemire - SportsTechie
Technology takes center court at the U.S. Open whenever Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams stands in sold-out Arthur Ashe Stadium, watching the replay of a line call. But in truth, innovation is everywhere, even on the sparsely attended perimeter courts.
A trio of tripods abut the nets on nine outer courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, holding up a pair of robotic cameras that flank a laser surveyor on the sideline opposite the chair umpire. Two other remote cameras are mounted beyond the baselines.
Those five pieces of equipment—the four cameras and a LiDAR (light detection and ranging) image-recognition system—are the only visible traces of ESPN’s broadcast coverage on these courts at the U.S. Open, which begins today in Flushing, Queens. That’s a stark contrast to the 58 combined network and Intel True View cameras inside Ashe for the early rounds, with more to be added as the tournament marches toward the championship matches.
But the gear on those outer courts, along with the tech that’s being used in the modular broadcast center across the USTA campus, makes it possible for as few as two people to produce a match for television using Simplylive’s ViBox production technology, Fletcher’s Tr-ACE system for camera player tracking, and SMT’s automated graphics in the control room. In all, ESPN will tap more than 600 workers to broadcast some 1,300 hours of tennis coverage spanning the entirety of the U.S. Open, including last week’s qualifying play and the two weeks of the main draw.
All that airtime makes the Open the network’s biggest event of the year, yet its headquarters are housed in a pair of modular buildings whose construction only began in July. “This is the largest thing we do, and it’s a flypack operation,” says Dennis Cleary, ESPN’s director of remote production operations. “This facility was empty four weeks ago.”
Sitting in the shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium, each modular is constructed of 22 trailer units—11 on the first floor, 11 on the second—giving the sports network about 10,500 square feet per building. ESPN contracts with Gearhouse Broadcast to rent all its equipment. But as nondescript as the gray-sided buildings are, the insides resemble what VP of production Jamie Reynolds calls “a super-charged Best Buy.”
In 2015, ESPN became the exclusive domestic rights holder of the U.S. Open and is now in the fifth year of an 11-year pact that runs through 2025. But this will be only the second Open in which ESPN is covering all 16 courts with cameras, with every point airing somewhere. Linear networks ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNEWS will carry about 130 hours of coverage, with the rest either streaming on ESPN3 or via the subscription service ESPN+.
That’s possible because of the automation of key functions in the control room. Simplylive’s touchscreen monitor enables one director to cut cameras, execute replays and insert graphics. The director can access four angles on those outer courts (which the network dubbed ACES, short for Automated Court Enhancement System), as well as all of the so-called beauty cameras taking B-roll around New York City and the national tennis center grounds. “It allows us to select cameras and effectively take what is a massive, conventional control room and synthesize it and converge it down to a desktop control area,” Reynolds says.
The two sideline cameras on the “ACES courts” are guided by laser tracking; an operator in the control room can select the player—or players in doubles matches—that ESPN wants to follow and the Fletcher system can discern the clothing and/or appearance of those players and keep them in the frame. This system, which is used on the outer courts at all four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, has already passed it greatest test: doubles at Wimbledon, which featured four players all wearing white.
“Budgets and numbers are getting smaller, yet the amount of content and events that are trying to be covered are growing,” says Gregory Macchia, Simplylive’s VP sales and operations for the Americas. “The traditional way of covering events with a lot of hardware, a lot of people, mobile trucks, having people on site—that can’t be sustained.”
Relying so much on technology has its drawbacks. Reynolds says that crafting a series of shots to capture personality and “give an event that lightning-strike moment of excitement” can be more challenging without the human influence of a camera operator. But what the coverage might lose in its nuances is made up for in its scope. ESPN serves as the U.S. Open’s host broadcaster, meaning its feeds are disseminated to international networks. Tennis generates significant handle in foreign betting markets, and that could translate to the burgeoning U.S. market too.
“I think the fact that we’re doing all the courts speaks to the volume and the interest that [is] out there and available. So you probably can read between the lines of what that message means,” Reynolds says, noting the reported 10-year, $1 billion deal between IMG and the ATP World Tourfor betting streaming and data rights. Regarding the specifics of ESPN’s U.S. Open coverage, Reynolds adds, “On the editorial side of the house, we cover the event. But we’ll recognize the fact that there’s a line out there, and we’ll keep our fans aware of what it is.”
ESPN has full confidence in the new technology, having tested it in the background of the 2017 tournament prior to going live with it last year. “Because we set up for a couple of weeks and we’re there for 14 straight days, like an Olympics, we have time to test and not burden the core production that’s going on,” says Chris Strong, a senior remote operations specialist who notes that ESPN is conducting other tests for possible implementation next year.
Given the betting markets and content demands across multiple channels, the ACES coverage is likely to become a fixture of broadcasts, just as ESPN’s temporary broadcast center may become a fixed structure after this year’s tournament. “Inevitably, the USTA’s goal is—now that they’ve added a second floor—to keep this permanent,” Cleary says of the modular headquarters. “But the only thing that really stays in here is maybe some of the office furniture that we own and purchased from IKEA.”