Fox, NBC, ESPN To Blanket Weekend in College Hoops Veterans Day Tributes

A Veteran’s Day sports tradition is rapidly growing, and, for broadcasters, it’s a unique but fulfilling challenge.

Last year’s first Carrier Classic, which took place on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego Harbor, was regarded as one of the top sports events of 2011.

After the success of last year’s Carrier Classic — the first college basketball game on the deck of an active aircraft carrier — everyone, including the broadcast networks, wants in on the show.

A total of four military sites — three ships and a hangar — will play host to live college basketball this weekend: the Armed Forces Classic in Germany on ESPN and the second Carrier Classic and the Navy-Marine Corps Classic on NBC Sports Network on Friday and the Battle on the Midway on all Fox Sports affiliates on Sunday.

As ESPN learned a year ago, an event like this makes for captivating television. Last year’s inaugural Carrier Classic was named “one of the year’s best sporting events” by SportsBusiness Journal.

“More than anything, it’s the people around them,” says Dave Miller, senior coordinating producer at ESPN, whose network will broadcast this year’s Armed Forces Classic from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. “Last year, it was such a unique setting that you could see San Diego Harbor, the deck of the ship, and the bridge. [In Germany,] it’s just such a unique spot in a nice setting, and you know you’re going to get a good crowd because you don’t see something like this often enough. It’s a lot of fun having such a unique atmosphere to capture.”

Live From the Yorktown
This year, the Carrier Classic shifts venues and networks, with the second edition taking place Friday on the USS Yorktown in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. With both a men’s and a women’s game this year, the Carrier Classic will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network as part of a triple-header that includes the Navy-Marine Corps Classic aboard the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, FL.

With all these events, the most significant challenge for broadcasters is gaining various clearances through military channels. Trying to run a broadcast off an active military site is fraught with limitations.

“One of the challenges that you run into when you’re working around active naval ships is that the RF spectrum is pretty well controlled by the fleet up on the base,” says NBC Technical Manager Michael Sandorse, who is working the Carrier Classic. “Of course, there is a lot of RF spectrum that the Navy has access to that we don’t really know anything about and that they don’t want to talk about for obvious reasons. So we’ve kept the RF as best we could to a bare minimum. We’ve got about three RF microphones, three wireless IFBs, and that is really it for the RF section here. And even those six weren’t easy to carve out of the RF spectrum.”

NBC will broadcast from Charleston out of NEP’s ND6, which is parked about 75 ft. below the ship’s deck on the dock. That creates a vertical cable haul for Sandorse, Production Manager Mike McGrath, and their teams. The longest cable run will be for the studio set, which is positioned about 750 ft. farther up the flight deck. In addition, they had to account for 12-20 ft. of cable just to allow slack for the tide, which puts significant tension on the cords as it rises  and falls.

For the Carrier Classic, NBC Sports Network will deploy 15 cameras, 11 of which will be used on the game. Three additional cameras will be used for the on-site set. There will also be a blimp camera overhead and two robotic cameras positioned on the ship for beauty shots.

NBC has partnered with Remote Facilities Services for a satellite-uplink truck, which will transmit the signal to NBC Universal’s facility in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, before it interfaces with the new Stamford, CT, home of NBC Sports Network’s studios.

Broadcast From Ramstein
Although ESPN will be broadcasting not off the deck of a ship but in a hangar on an airbase, the network’s circumstances are unique in operating from an active overseas base. Miller acknowledges that planning and preparations appear to be easier than broadcasting from a ship.

Spectator stands are set up inside a hanger at Ramstein Air Base in Germany for ESPN’s broadcast of the Armed Forces Classic.

“When you’re on a ship, you have to lift everything up through elevators in the ship,” he says. “You’ve got to transport everything from the dock up to the ship; it takes time. There’s a lot of time that it takes just to get all of your equipment, cables, the stands, everything up onto the ship. It takes longer to set things up. Not that it will be simple in Germany, but we’re on ground. We still work out of some arenas these days that aren’t cabled, so we’re used to wheeling things in.”

What could offer a challenge is that ESPN’s window to prepare this year is much smaller than it was when boarding the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego Harbor last year.

“The key is to be in and out as [quickly] as possible,” says Miller. “We had about 10 days to set things up on the aircraft carrier last year — again, it takes longer to set up and all that — but here, we’ve got only four days before the event. Things were starting to get loaded to the area [on Monday], but now we have control of the hangar [as of Tuesday]. The goal is to be out by Sunday at noon, if not by Saturday night.”

ESPN is using a mobile-production truck provided by Visions, a London-based division of NEP Broadcasting. A satellite-uplink truck will also be parked on a road just above the hangar, transmitting the signal back to Bristol, CT.

Battle on the Midway
In San Diego, site of last year’s Carrier Classic, Fox Sports will carry the Battle on the Midway. The game will be handled by production and operations staff of Fox Sports San Diego with the assistance of sister networks in Los Angeles.

The deck of the USS Midway needed to be covered to protect against the rain that postponed the Battle of the Midway to Sunday afternoon on Fox Sports affiliates.

The game, originally scheduled to take place on Friday but delayed by inclement weather, was shifted to Sunday, creating a bit of a logistical headache for Fox Sports San Diego Executive Producer Jeff Byle.

“It threw a lot of wrinkles into what we need to do,” he says. “All of these vendors, crews, technicians, and engineers — all of the people that were booked — a lot of them were not available on the weekend because they’re doing things like the NFL and college football. It’s been a shifting of the deck here, but we’re making it happen.”

Following a meeting with event planners on Tuesday, it was decided that Fox Sports would hold off setting up any gear. That paid off, because Byle and his team didn’t have to break down existing infrastructure when the court was covered to protect against the rain.

Setup will begin on Saturday, with nearly the entire day dedicated to running more than 27,000 ft. of fiber, triax, and audio cabling from Mobile TV Group’s 23HDX on the pier up to the flight deck.

Of all of the broadcasts, Fox’s boasts the largest camera complement, with 17 cameras on board, including an ultra-slow-motion unit and a blimp position. Robotic cameras will also be positioned high atop the ship’s mast to provide beauty shots. The remaining cameras are arranged in a normal basketball setup, although, Byle notes, nothing is normal about broadcasting from a naval ship.

“The infrastructure to try to put these cameras up is difficult,” he says. “As far as your game camera and tight shot, we have them on scissor lifts to make sure that those are stable. When you use scaffolding, sometimes the elements can get in the way, and people start moving and swaying the cameras. The scissor lifts are much more sturdy.”

Another “safety” measure that Byle insisted on was having two satellite-transmission trucks to ensure that the signal couldn’t be lost.

“That adds to the uniqueness of the event, too, because we as broadcasters have become so used to — especially when you’re doing major pro or college — having everything fibered,” he says. “I wanted the second satellite truck just to be sure that we have some redundancy.”

For the staff of Fox Sports San Diego, which is less than a year old, it’s a particular thrill to be handed the responsibility of producing a unique, high-profile sports event.

“It really becomes our Super Bowl,” says Byle. “To be able to put your hands on an event like this is tremendous. Not only is it a cool event from a production standpoint, but it’s an event that’s honoring our nation’s veterans on Veteran’s Day. It’s a crazy technical undertaking, but, at the end of the day, it’s very rewarding.”

Programming Notes
Carrier Classic (NBC Sports Network)
The second-annual Carrier Classic will tip off on Friday from the USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, SC, with an expanded twin-bill event featuring both a men’s and women’s game.

Both games will be telecast on NBC Sports Network. The women’s game between Notre Dame and Ohio State will kick off coverage at 4 p.m. ET.

The inaugural Navy-Marine Corps Classic will be held on the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, FL, and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network.

At 6 p.m., Liam McHugh will host Carrier Classic Countdown live from the deck of the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, FL, site of the Navy-Marine Corps Classic later that night. The men’s game at the Yorktown between Marquette and Ohio State will tip off live at 7 p.m.

Dave Strader will handle play-by-play duties of both Carrier Classic games. For the women’s game, he will be joined by former women’s hoops star Swin Cash. For the men’s game, Donny Marshall takes over analyst duties.

The Carrier Classic is produced by Morale Entertainment Foundation, creator and producer of the inaugural Carrier Classic last year. The company also runs the Best of America Troop Tour Series.

The women’s game expands the Carrier Classic and enables Morale and its sponsors the opportunity to elevate awareness of women’s critical role in service to our country.

Navy-Marine Corps Classic (NBC Sports Network)
Following the Carrier Classic men’s game, NBC Sports Network will shift to the USS Bataan for the Navy-Marine Corps Classic. The game between Florida and Georgetown is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. ET.

Tom Hammond will call the action along with former NBA head coach Stan Van Gundy as analyst. Carolyn Manno will report from both benches.

Armed Forces Classic (ESPN)
The inaugural Armed Forces Classic will be televised beginning with live studio coverage from Germany, beginning on ESPNU at 5 p.m. and continuing with a full pregame show at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN. The game tips off on ESPN at 6 p.m.

Dan Shulman will have the call of the game with analyst Jay Bilas and on-court reporter Andy Katz. ESPN’s 30-minute pregame show will be live from Hangar 5 with anchor John Anderson and college basketball analyst Jay Williams.

Hannah Storm and Kevin Negandhi will anchor SportsCenter from Hangar 3, telecasting before a live audience of servicemen and -women tonight (6 p.m., ESPN) and Friday (9 a.m.-5:30 p.m., ESPN, ESPNEWS).

The game is the centerpiece of ESPN’s fourth-annual America’s Heroes: A Salute to Our Veterans, a five-day initiative that honors veterans and troops in programming across the network’s media platforms from now through Sunday.

Battle on the Midway (Fox Sports)
Fox Sports will carry the inaugural Battle on the Midway aboard the USS Midway in San Diego Harbor, with San Diego State hosting Syracuse. Weather issues caused the game, originally scheduled for Friday night, to be moved to Sunday at 4 p.m.

Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Dick Enberg will call the game along with analyst Steve Kerr. Erin Andrews will work the sidelines, and Mike Pomeranz will host pre- and post-game coverage from a set on the deck on the carrier.

The game will be televised locally on Fox Sports San Diego and will also be distributed nationally on all Fox Sports regional networks and affiliates.