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.”
SimplyLive will showcase the latest advances and new products at IBC 2019.
As remote productions continue to be one of the key focus of this industry in perpetual transformation, SimplyLive introduces the UI Gateway for management and bandwidth optimization of remote connectivity. The UI Gateway allows the various SimplyLive UI applications to be available remotely without requiring high bandwidth connections. The gateway is designed to work on point to point connections and can even work on internet connections of 5 to 50 Mbps per user.
This new gateway adds the last critical piece to the SimplyLive flexible architecture design to manage the various production scenarios from local, remote, cloud or true at-home situations.
ESPN Deploys Ultra-Efficient ViBox Workflow for Record Slate of Little League Baseball, Softball Games
Seven Gearhouse trucks with Simplylive ViBox systems produced 150+ games from 10 sites
Although the Little League World Series has been a staple of ESPN’s summer programming slate for decades, the network is taking its efforts to a new level this year. For the first time, ABC, ESPN’s networks, and ESPN+ are carrying every single Little League Baseball and Softball U.S. regional and World Series game — a record 345 games in all. ESPN has continued its push into the automated-production realm in order to produce this throng of regional Little League games over the past month, deploying production trucks outfitted with SimplyLive ViBox semi-automated-production systems to 10 different competition sites.
ESPN is using Simplylive ViBox semi-automated production systems to cover nearly 200 Little League Baseball and Softball games this summer.
“These are games that were never covered before because it was challenging from a budgetary standpoint to find a model that made sense,” says Chris Calcinari, SVP, remote production operations, ESPN and ABC Sports. “We’ve now been able to create an efficient model that allows us to do these games for TV or streaming without sacrificing significant production quality. We’re excited to be able to serve Little League fans with content they never would have seen before.”
Seven Trucks, 10 Locations, Nearly 200 Games
ESPN deployed seven Gearhouse Broadcast production trucks equipped with ViBox systems to 10 locations to cover the Little League Baseball and Softball Regionals, as well as the championship events from all divisions (Intermediate, Junior, and Senior) for the first time — totaling about 180 games (primarily streamed on ESPN+) in less than a month. The trucks deployed were more compact units Gearhouse added to its fleet when it acquired Proshow Broadcast last year: its 40-ft. Prodigy and Maestro trucks, O-class REMI units Opus and Ovation, and two Sprinter-class units.
A Vibox system was temporarily installed in each truck in a two-person, two-screen operator configuration: director/TD on one screen and producer/replay on the other.
“The [Gearhouse] trucks are smaller than your average truck, and, with the automated touchscreen systems, an operator can do multiple functions at the same time,” Calcinari explains. “Not only are we minimizing the footprint, but we’re also combining some of the roles, like having a director also cut cameras on the ViBox touchscreen [instead of a TD at a switcher]. That’s going to be a big focus for us: how do we get really efficient inside the truck using the touchscreen to minimize the number of bodies onsite.”
ESPN deployed five to seven cameras at each site — a combination of manned cameras, locked-off POVs, and Fletcher robos — depending on the setup of each ballpark.
“These are primarily traditional camera positions that we use for Little League coverage anyway,” notes Dennis Cleary, director, remote production operations, ESPN. “We are just making it fit into the ViBox model. Where we’re at now is on the educational and training side for the operators: the biggest thing we’ve got to work on is increasing that pool of folks that can use the ViBox system. We have a great training setup with Simplylive at all of these venues to make sure it’s a success.”
Seven Gearhouse Broadcast trucks deployed for ESPN’s Little League productions feature ViBox systems.
In addition to the ViBox operators, the limited crew inside each mobile unit included a graphics operator using an AJT graphics system that feeds the ViBox via NDI (with some assistance from a graphics AD), a camera shader (provided by Gearhouse), and an A1 for audio. ESPN utilized the existing audio infrastructure in the Gearhouse trucks, including Calrec and Yamaha digital consoles and the usual complement of accessories and intercom systems. Audio to and from the ViBox was interfaced to the console for playback and recording functions. A team of 14 Gearhouse engineers leapfrogged around the country to cover the various tournaments.
“It has been a very successful project from our end and a really good learning opportunity to take a platform like this and work with the client to do an extensive proof of concept,” says Tim Lewis, VP, technology and design, Gearhouse Broadcast USA.
ESPN Plots an Automated-Production Roadmap
The Little League productions mark the latest chapter in ESPN’s automated-production efforts with Simplylive, following ESPN’s outer-court coverage of the 2018 US Open tennis tournament (which contributed to ESPN’s Sports Emmy win for Outstanding Technical Team Remote).
The Simplylive ViBox system requires two operators: director/TD and producer/replay.
“We were very comfortable with [the ViBox] at the US Open, but that was nine courts being produced with a flypack set up in one room,” says Cleary. “By spreading this out from an operational standpoint for [Little League], [the effort] becomes more complex, but we know that the system is completely capable,”
ESPN also utilized ViBox systems for its productions of GEICO High School Basketball Showcase games in December and continues to use the system at its South Street Seaport studio in New York City.
“This is certainly our largest rollout of the ViBox to multiple locations,” says Calcinari. “Obviously, we used it extensively at the US Open and elsewhere, but to do it across 10 sites in seven different mobile units over a short period of time for almost 200 games, I would say there’s nothing that has been done on this scale from a live-event standpoint [in the U.S.]”
Gregory Macchia, VP, sales and operations, Americas, Simplylive, adds, “We’ve done a lot of events at this point, but this was probably the biggest test for us. We knew we were going on-air with hundreds of games from multiple [locations] no matter what. I think this shows how [ViBox] is not just a concept anymore; it’s a real product that can do real productions, and we can do it with less people and a smaller footprint. These are almost 200 productions that would not have been [done] in past, and that is our focus: doing more productions and getting more content out there that wouldn’t be available otherwise.”
The REMI Factor: Testing Control From Bristol
ESPN also conducted tests to integrate ViBox workflow into its REMI (remote integration) at-home–production model, further reducing travel costs for smaller productions like Little League. In this test, the ViBox operator was located at the network’s Bristol, CT, headquarters and controlled the ViBox onsite in the truck via a custom GUI.
“In theory, we could do the replays and cut cameras from the GUI back in Bristol,” says Calcinari. “That could be another iteration of our REMI model long-term, but we’re still in the testing phase of that. We’ve done some testing with that already at the Seaport studio: our LAPC [L.A. Production Center] can control the ViBox that is sitting at the Seaport for some of our shows, like Jalen & Jacoby. We’ve definitely proven the model, and we know it works. Now we’re just trying to figure out how to deal with it in a live-event scenario vs. a studio show.”
Looking Ahead: More ESPN+ Content May Mean More ViBox Productions
Calcinari says ESPN will continue to evaluate future opportunities to use ViBox on productions — especially as thousands of live events are added to the ESPN+ OTT streaming service in the coming years.
“We will continue to find places where this tool allows us to be more efficient. We think this is a big step forward, and we know that the number of events [streaming on] ESPN+ is only going to grow in the future,” says Calcinari. “Now that we have completed the ViBox run of games, we look forward to digesting our learning and focusing on the next opportunity for this technology.”