Flexibility Is Key to ESPN3’s NFL Pro Day Coverage

With only six weeks to go until the highly anticipated 2012 NFL Draft, ESPN3 is providing live coverage of five NFL Pro Days featuring many of the league’s top prospects. ESPN3 traveled to the University of Alabama and Clemson last week, with plans to head to Baylor next Wednesday and Andrew Luck’s Stanford next Thursday. ESPN3 returns to Alabama on March 29 to wrap up its NFL Pro Day slate with live coverage of Trent Richardson’s and Mark Barron’s private Pro Day workouts.

NFL scouts time DeQuan Menzie in the 40 at Alabama’s Pro Day on March 7. Photo Credit: AP

Less structured than the NFL Combine, NFL Pro Days offer league scouts the opportunity to check out top prospects on their home turf. Visiting scouts coordinate with the individual schools on which prospects they’d like to see take part in specific events, such as the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill, and long jump, and the athletes themselves determine their level of participation in the event.

While the informality of NFL Pro Days can make for excellent programming, it can also cause headaches for producers. According to ESPN3 Senior Producer Stos Hall, flexibility — and a large staff — is key.

“[The NFL Pro Day requires] a pretty fluid and flexible organization,” says Hall. “It’s fluid in its planning; it’s fluid in the participation of some of the players: some of them may show up, they may not; they may participate in one category and not in another.”

Because a player can opt out of an event at the last minute, Hall’s team must be quick to identify the player and be prepared to adjust the original rundown.

“While those players have the freedom to make those decisions on the fly, it creates a challenge for us,” says Hall. “What the participation list looks like on the night before [may not be] what it looks like on the day of, half an hour [before] the [event’s] starting.”

The key to planning for these seemingly unpredictable events, says Hall, lies in the on-site crew. For Alabama’s Pro Day on March 7, ESPN3 rolled out a standard college-football crew, including camera operators, two videotape operators, video engineer, two audio engineers, Chyron Duet operator, production assistant, producer, director, technical director, and two commentators.

Looking forward to ESPN3’s next Pro Day production, Hall plans to make “some pretty aggressive changes … as far as our communications, planning, and identification.” These changes include adding a couple of stage managers, increasing the supplemental crew, and upping the number of people on headset who can quickly identify individual players, track events, and detect any deviations from the original rundown.

At Alabama, Baylor, and Stanford, ESPN3 will roll out a combination of four to six HD hard cameras and handhelds accompanied by an uplink truck. For each school, one hard camera will be positioned at midfield and another in the end zone. Additional camera placement depends on whether the events are taking place indoors or outdoors, where the school is staging the 40-yard dash, and where the quarterback and wide-receiver workouts are being held, among other scenarios.

The feed from each production will be sent to Bristol, CT, where it will travel through MLB Advanced Media’s video encoder and out through the online video player on WatchESPN.com.

Clemson Does It Their Way
Unlike Alabama’s Pro Day on March 7, Clemson decided to produce its March 8 Pro Day in-house. Instead of an uplink truck, Clemson’s Pro Day was produced out of the university’s video-control room, located in the Jervey Athletic Center, approximately a block away from Littlejohn Coliseum.

Clemson deployed three Panasonic hard cameras to cover the day’s events. From the control room, which boasts a Ross Carbonite production switcher and XPression character generator, the feed is sent to Bristol via fiber provided by AT&T.

“From Clemson’s standpoint, our goal [is that the viewer doesn’t] see a difference in whether there’s a truck sitting here or [the event] is being produced out of our control room,” says Rick Bagby, director, Athletic Video Services, Clemson. “That’s our ultimate goal: that you cannot tell the difference. Hopefully, by end of day on Thursday, no one [knew] it was produced out of our control room.”

The crew consisted of Clemson employees, supplemented by local hires. Because of the timing of Clemson’s Pro Day, Bagby couldn’t turn to his usual student staff.

“I just can’t get any students out of class,” he says of the event’s 9 a.m. start.

For the most part, ESPN3 did not take part in Clemson’s production. However, the network dispatched a creative-services staff member to implement ESPN3’s graphics on Clemson’s Ross equipment.

Brent Colborne, senior manager, Programming & Acquisitions, for ESPN3, shares Bagby’s goal: that the NFL Pro Day viewer not be able to tell the difference between the respective ESPN3 and Clemson productions.

“All [five NFL Pro Day productions] will be in HD; all of them will have ESPN graphics; all of them will have two [commentators],” says Colborne. “I really don’t expect that much of a difference in the level of production, other than the fact that we will be sending a full production unit down to Baylor [on March 21] and Stanford [on March 22] as opposed to Rick producing the Clemson Pro Day out of his control room.”