Pro Bowl Producer, Director Turn Focus to Audio

ESPN’s Monday Night Football team faced a new production challenge last weekend. Where the MNF crew’s biggest test during the season is communicating the X’s and O’s of an NFL game through the right mix of cameras, replay devices, and graphical enhancements, Sunday’s Pro Bowl game offered an all-star environment where strategy took a back seat to stardom.

“It’s a different kind of game for us,” explains Jay Rothman, senior coordinating producer for ESPN. “It’s a little less X’s and O’s, given the restrictions of teams and the rules changes, but it’s an opportunity to do a lot of things that we’re not able to do in the regular season.”

All-Access for the Fan
Instead of focusing on tactics and game plans, of which there are far fewer than in a normal Monday-night contest, Rothman and director Chip Dean decided to highlight the players’ accomplishments, use more audio than ever, and provide deeper access for the fan. The NFL allows the network full access for the Pro Bowl game, so ESPN decided to mike up 14 players, including five of the six quarterbacks. NFL Films installed the wireless microphones into the players’ shoulder pads prior to kickoff.

“[Quarterback] Aaron Rodgers is miked, so when he steps into the huddle, we may open up his mic to hear him talk to somebody,” Dean explains. “Or if Ray Lewis makes a tackle, I may cue the audio guy to have Ray’s mike opened up so you can hear the hits a little bit better, maybe hear some of the talking. Hopefully, it will give you a little more of an inside-the-game feel.”

Since eight of ESPN’s 25 cameras were isolated on the wired players, Dean cut audio for the game in a manner similar to the way he cuts video for other games. A 10-second delay helped ESPN run a clean show and still produce some live audio.

“We try to focus on the wired players because it’s part of the all-access,” he says. “You feel like you’re inside the game, and that makes it more entertaining and exiting.”

New In-Game Angles
There were no high-speed cameras or telestration cameras for this game, leaving ESPN with just two super-slo-mo systems and coverage aimed more towards personalities than playbooks.

ESPN also had a tap into the coach-to-quarterback communications system, so the network knew ahead of time whether the upcoming play was a pass or a run.

“That enables us to use Skycam live for a running play, which typically you don’t see,” Rothman says. “You usually see it more in pre-snap shots and in replay, but we can use it live knowing that the play is going to be a run.”

Game coverage featured cameras in the locker rooms for pre-game, halftime, and post-game, and a Steadicam followed the offense into the huddle and ran off the field when the team broke the huddle. “We’re allowed more aggressive use of our handheld cameras,” Rothman points out.

“We try to keep the coverage more fast-paced,” he adds, “since the game plan is a little bit different for us. It’s more putting a plan in place to maximize the audio that we have versus game coverage per se.”

Together Again
With the exception of a few individuals who have commitments to the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, most of ESPN’s Monday Night Football crew was intact in Miami, so they knew what to expect. Still, when dealing with live audio, everyone knows to expect the unexpected.

“You can try to plan for what you think [Bengals’ Chad] Ochocinco will say, but you never know,” Dean says. “That audio has to be cleared by the NFL, clipped, sold through Jay [Rothman], and then Jay and I get it on the air. It’s a long process, but hopefully, they’re entertaining and candid with us, and we get it in a timely fashion.”

The MNF team has been apart since Dec. 28, the final Monday-night game of the regular season. With some college basketball games and other events under their belts in the meantime, the team was glad to get back together again for one more kickoff.

“We all stepped aside for a couple weeks, and I appreciate how much we enjoy working with each other,” Dean said during preparations for the game. “It will be a lot of fun to get back to it on Sunday.”