ESPN Welcomes Back NBA with New L.A.-Based Studio Show

After six months of NBA coverage that was limited almost exclusively to courtrooms, bargaining sessions, and the Twitter exploits of Meta World Peace/Ron Artest, ESPN will finally make its return to the hard court on Christmas day with a quadruple-header of NBA action. While the shotgun start to the NBA season is a welcomed gift for fans, it has also presented a cornucopia of challenges for ESPN’s operations and production teams, which had to rebook mobile units, crews, and a variety of other resources for ESPN/ABC’s revamped slate of 90 regular season games.

“Our operations people knew we would have our normal Wednesday night, Friday night, and ABC Sunday games, but we were not necessarily ready for things like Sundays with four games [two on ABC and two on ESPN], or so many Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday games,” says Tom McNeely, who enters his first year as ESPN’s NBA coordinating producer. “But our operations folks have been in constant contact with the truck vendors and that has allowed us to be in great shape going into the season.”

Californication: Studio Show Heads to L.A.
Chris Paul is not the only marquee attraction heading to L.A. for the 2011-12 season, as ESPN’s NBA Countdown pregame show will, for the first time, originate from the ESPN Los Angels Production Center at L.A. LIVE, just across the street from the Staples Center.

The revamped Countdown will not have traditional host (Stuart Scott and Hannah Storm previously filled that roll on the show) and feature a “less scripted, more dynamic” format, according to ESPN EVP of production Norby Williamson, including a roundtable setup for analysts to debate the games and top NBA storylines, as well as an increased social media presence.

“There is no question that having our own studio, control room, and production people there in L.A. is going to be a huge advantage and allow for a lot of flexibility,” says McNeely.”

In addition, Hall of Famer Magic Johnson will take on an expanded role, joining Jon Barry, Michael Wilbon, and Chris Broussard as a featured analyst throughout the entire season. ESPN also hopes the new studio will entice NBA stars and Hollywood notables to stop by during the Countdown telecasts.

“We have a vibrant location there at L.A. Live,” says ESPN VP of Production Bob Rauscher. “Certainly, with both the Lakers and the Clippers playing right across the street, there is much more of an opportunity for guests and players, as well as in the entertainment field. It was not the primary driver of why we’re in Los Angeles, but it is certainly one of the benefits of being there.”

O Come All Ye NBA Faithful
ESPN plans to pull out all the stops for its four-pronged NBA opening day, including a Phil Collins-at-Live-Aid-style jaunt by ESPN’s lead commentator team of Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy. The duo will call the Mavericks-Heat game in Dallas at 2:30 p.m. ET, before boarding a plane to the Bay Area where they will call the Warriors-Clippers game at 10:30 p.m. ET. Although McNeely says no specific plans have been set in stone in terms of covering the pair’s trek, he does acknowledge that there will be plenty of cross promotion during the afternoon games.

“It is easy to get a flip cam to document them running out of the Dallas arena, getting on the plane, and hustling to the Golden State Arena, but we’re also looking at a few others ways to create some excitement around that,” he says. “We would like to get a glimpse of them working on the plane. There’s no guarantees but [a live satellite uplink during the trip] is something that we are definitely looking at.”

The 2011 NBA Finals rematch between the Mavericks and Heat will serve as ESPN’s A-game on Christmas day, featuring all the bells and whistles that go along with that. This will include 12 hard/handheld cameras, a SkyCam, above-the-rim cameras on each hoop, an ultra-slo-mo camera system, and hallways POV’s near each team’s locker room, and a blimp for aerial coverage.

That headliner will be joined by three other marquee matchups, one more than was originally laid out under the original NBA television schedule.

“Our operations department had trucks that were locked down for the original three Christmas games,” says McNeely. “But they kept conversations going with truck vendors just in case that expanded. Many peoples’ gut feeling at ESPN was that if the NBA could rectify the situation, then Christmas Day would be the start date. So we all prepared for that, just in case.”

Make Way for 3D
Although the ESPN 3D’s slate of NBA games has to be announced, it is expected to exceed last year’s total of 11 regular season games (and 12 playoff games). Of course, ESPN’s 3D production techniques have come a long way since the 2010-11 tip-off, as the 5D model (a unilateral 2D-3D production that deploys a single mobile unit and shares cameras between the shows wherever possible) has taken hold. All games that air on ESPN 3D this season will be 5D productions, where the 2D telecast is derived from the from the left eye feed of the 3D show.

The 5D model promises to change the way people think about 3D production – both in terms of philosophy and cost – and has gone from being used solely for compact sports like boxing to large-scale sports like Little League baseball, college football, and NBA and college basketball.

In August, ESPN produced nearly the entire Little League World Series using the 5D approach, making it the most comprehensive 5D production to date. McNeely, a 20-plus year veteran of LLWS productions, produced the 2D/3D coverage and now brings that wealth of 5D knowledge to his gig as NBA coordinating producer.

“I walked out of LLWS amazed that we had just done 20 5D productions out of Lamade Stadium [in Williamsport] and it worked really really well,” he says. “Everyone now knows that 5D can be done now, and done well.”

“We don’t have specific dates [for ESPN 3D games] yet, but we have the people in place,” he adds. “I will probably produce the early season games and a 5D-experienced technical director and lead EVS operator will also be there for the first few games. Then we will take it from there. We have specialty people in place for the 3D that will be available and we hope to [expand] from there.”

ABC and ESPN’s NBA coverage kicks off on Christmas Day at 2 p.m. ET with Kia NBA Countdown on ABC. ABC will carry Miami at Dallas at 2:30 p.m. and Chicago at L.A. Lakers at 5 p.m. ESPN and ESPN3.com will then carry Orlando at Oklahoma City at 8 p.m. and L.A. Clippers at Golden State at 10:30 p.m.